Lake Wales reaches state title game with decisive win

Lake Wales High School running back Corey Harris Jr. (7) rushes the ball against Columbia High School during their FHSAA 3S State Semifinal game in Lake Wales Friday night. December 2, 2022.
Lake Wales High School running back Corey Harris Jr. (7) rushes the ball against Columbia High School during their FHSAA 3S State Semifinal game in Lake Wales Friday night. December 2, 2022.

LAKE WALES — The magical run continued for the Lake Wales Highlanders.

In this particular instance there happened to be a concert going on directly adjacent from Legion Field — a home field advantage the Highlanders earned thanks to their perfect record of 13-0 and the No. 1 seed heading into the Class 3S state semifinals vs. Columbia on Friday night. On a perfect mild night for football, the Lake Wales band was rocking as people were jamming to the school’s music, as well as the tunes of the nearby concert.

Fans were in a good mood because the game was well in hand for the Highlanders early and often, and thanks to 37-7 blowout over the No. 7 team in Class 3S, it’s the first time the program has advanced to the state finals under Tavaris Johnson’s eight years as head coach.

It's also the Highlanders' first trip to the championship game since 1994.

A big reason Lake Wales was able to dominate is because the burly offensive and the defensive lines flat out manhandled the Columbia offensive and defensive lines that had been playing well all year.

“Every (offensive) lineman you saw tonight is a sophomore — picture that," Johnson said. "This could be some good football for a long time, but I think what makes them special is the coaching. They’re getting encouraged everywhere they go. We’re small, we’re young, but we are hungry. And we've been teaching it all year.”

That philosophy assisted the Highlanders in getting up 28-0 after senior quarterback Trent Grotjan threw a 4-yard touchdown to senior receiver Xavier Marlow off of a run-pass option in the middle of the second quarter.

Also advancing:Lakeland grinds out win to reach state title game for 9th time

This was the exclamation point.

The statement was following Columbia senior quarterback Tyler Jefferson coughing up the ball after running for 15 yards. Lake Wales senior outside linebacker Terrell James recovered the fumble, and on the next drive the offensive line and receivers did an admirable job in blocking to set up a Grotjan run-pass option to junior wide receiver Carlos Mitchell for a 45-yard touchdown on a third-and-3 play with 8:18 to go in the second.

All these touchdown passes were often made possible because of Lake Wales' running game. Senior running back Corey Harris Jr. racked up 21 rushes for 132 yards and a touchdown. Harris is now less than 60 yards shy of 1,000 yards despite having just 378 yards in the regular season. In four playoff games, he has rushed for 563 yards.

Lake Wales High School's Jaremiah Anglin Jr. (0) is met by Columbia High School defender Kani Fulton (20) as he runs upfield during their FHSAA 3S State Semifinal game in Lake Wales Friday night. December 2, 2022.
Lake Wales High School's Jaremiah Anglin Jr. (0) is met by Columbia High School defender Kani Fulton (20) as he runs upfield during their FHSAA 3S State Semifinal game in Lake Wales Friday night. December 2, 2022.

“Offensively we kind of got behind the chains — got in passing situations," Columbia head coach Demetric Jackson said. "We had three critical turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble that really hurt us,” “We gave up too many explosive plays in the passing game.”

Following a 5-yard touchdown from Harris on a 10-play, 75-yard drive late in the first quarter, Columbia’s Jefferson threw an interception to senior cornerback Philipp Davis. This set up a 74-yard touchdown strike from Grotjan to senior wide receiver Jaremiah Anglin with 9:37 left in the second quarter. The Highlanders built their lead to 14-0.

This momentum carried the Highlanders to the statement and the exclamation point.

When the second half rolled around, Lake Wales mainly ran the ball, which led to field goals for senior kicker Mauricio Alvarez of 36, 37 and 38 yard that solidified Lake Wales advancing to the state finals.

Defensivley, Anglin picked off Jefferson in the second half right after Grotjan threw an interception to Columbia junior cornerback Jerome Carter III.

Still, Grotjan finished the day with 175 yards passing and three touchdowns.

"This comes down to just the relentless working day in and day out," Johnson said. "They just never forget who they are. We faced some adversity on and off the field. But each week we asked them to get 1% better. And that 1% ... led us to an undefeated season so far. What gives us our superpower I don't know. I just think it's just really them believing."

The only Columbia score was from a 5-yard touchdown run from senior fullback Tony Fulton with 1:06 to go in the second quarter on a 10-play, 52-yard drive. Helping Fulton in the run game was Jefferson, who ran the ball 11 times for 96 yards, which was needed as Columbia receivers were banged up.

With the season now wrapped up for the Tigers, the program now looks toward the future. Twenty-one seniors will move on. But the biggest group is dominated by sophomores.

"We're going to do some rehab and get ready to go. ... We're going to do some things that get us back here," Jackson said.

The Highlanders (14-0) will take on the No. 3 seed Mainland (11-3) at 1 p.m. on Dec. 16 in the Class 3S state championship game.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Highlanders continue magical ride in state football