Lakeland wins vs. state champs in spring football; 3 observations of each team

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Lakeland's Zach Pleuss attempts a pass vs. Venice in a spring contest. Pleuss threw for three touchdowns and his team won 31-24.
Lakeland's Zach Pleuss attempts a pass vs. Venice in a spring contest. Pleuss threw for three touchdowns and his team won 31-24.

Despite dealing with a litany of injuries and a multitude of changes, the Class 7A Lakeland Dreadnaughts proved to be a better team than the defending Class 8A state football champions.

Lakeland jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead and beat Venice High 31-24 in a spring football contest Thursday at Bryant Stadium.

The victory was led by Lakeland quarterback and Ridge Community transfer Zach Pleuss, who completed 14-of-21 passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns. Daidren Zipperer caught four of those passes for 130 yards and two scores.

Pleuss threw a 59-yard TD pass to Zipperer with 7:33 left in the first quarter and Lakeland running back Don’Ares Johnson ran 33 yards for a touchdown with 3:15 left in the second quarter. Then, Pleuss threw a 10-yard touchdown strike to Tyler Williams with 20 seconds left in the first half to give the Dreadnaughts a 21-0 lead at the break.

Lakeland running back Don'Ares Johnson glides up the field vs. Venice. Johnson ran for a 33-yard touchdown in the spring contest.
Lakeland running back Don'Ares Johnson glides up the field vs. Venice. Johnson ran for a 33-yard touchdown in the spring contest.

“We feel good about it, but it just showed us what we've got to work on this summer,” Lakeland coach Bill Castle said. “Obviously, we've got to clean up all the penalties that we got (Thursday night) and just try to build off this game, and have a good summer (of) work.”

After Venice got on the board with a touchdown pass early in the third quarter, Pleuss countered with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Zipperer on a third-and-7 play with 3:30 left in the period to up Lakeland's lead to 28-7. Lakeland's final points came on Calum Maldoon 26-yard field goal with 8:42 left in the fourth quarter.

Venice quarterback Brooks Bentley hurls a pass against Lakeland as Tyler Jefferson attempts to block the attempt in a spring contest.
Venice quarterback Brooks Bentley hurls a pass against Lakeland as Tyler Jefferson attempts to block the attempt in a spring contest.

Final scores for Venice came on a 18-yard touchdown pass from Brooks Bentley to Keyon Sears with 4:36 left in the fourth, a Kirill Kotov 20-yard field goal with under three minutes left and a 20-yard touchdown pass from Bentley to Sears with 1.7 seconds left in the game on a fourth-and-10 play.

Bentley threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns while Sears hauled in six catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns.

“There were some good things and some bad things,” Venice head coach John Peacock said. “It’s going to take some time to get everything going, clicking the way we want. This is the first step of it.”

Here are three observations from the game.

Pleuss picks up where he left off

Pleuss was the county’s leading passer in 2020 for Ridge Community, and he showed he would be one of the best quarterbacks in the county again. At one point, he completed seven straight passes. He sat in the pocket, relied on his mechanics and made sound decisions under duress throughout the game.

Larry Jones shows he’s one of the best

Jones, an all-county linebacker, used his added strength from the weightlifting season, utilizing his brute force early and often. The defensive enforcer made several key plays on defense, including sacking Bentley for a 10-yard loss on first down near the end of the first quarter. Jones also executed a vicious hit before recovering a fumble on a fourth-and-28 play near the end of the third quarter.

Huge play stalls Venice

Venice didn’t score until the third quarter, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have chances in the first half. Driving down the field in the beginning of the second, Venice finally got the ball near the end zone, but defensive back Mike Singleton picked off Bentley in the end zone, effectively foiling any scoring plans. “I thought our defense played great,” Castle said.

Venice battled despite newcomers

With 10 new players and five new starters on the offensive line, Bentley still managed to throw a late touchdown pass that got the Indians within a score, allowing Venice to attempt an onside kick at the end of the game. While he wasn’t always accurate with his passes, Bentley was able to scramble out the pocket and flick a few throws for completions that ended up in positive yardage. “He did a great job of running the ball ... tough kid, (and) he made good decisions,” Peacock said.

Sears explodes for big plays

Another bright spot for the Indians was Sears’ play. The smallest player on field had a constant knack for getting open and making some jaw-dropping moves that would leave defenders in the dust. Sears had four plays of 15 yards or more, which included a running play and his two touchdown catches.

A championship hangover for Venice

Peacock lost six all-area players from a year ago, including quarterback Ryan Browne and running back DJ Escort, so from the get-go, it looked as if Venice was trying to figure out its identity. It appeared the current group of players were waiting for some of last year’s competitors to walk through the door. Still, Venice competed and didn’t give up despite being down by 24 at one point in the game. “We’ll get a lot better from this game,” Peacock said.

Robert Magobet can be reached at rmagobet@gannett.com or at 856-905-4537. Follow him on Twitter: @RMagobet31

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Lakeland wins vs. state champs; Six observations of each team football