The Venice football team has won its regional championship for the past two years, and the Indians were hardly tested in either game — but that likely won’t be the case this season.
The Indians handled Tampa Bay Tech, 48-17, in 2016 before knocking out East Lake in a 43-14 blowout last season. However, the team standing in Venice’s way of a third straight regional title isn’t like the Indians’ past opponents.
The Bloomingdale Bulls have never been in this position before. In fact, Bloomingdale had never won a playoff game before a 45-8 win over Riverdale on Nov. 9.
But despite the Bulls’ inexperience in the postseason, the Indians won’t be underestimating them.
“It’s gonna be a good game. There’s no doubt about that,” Venice coach John Peacock said. “It’s not gonna be a cakewalk. Our last two regional championship games have been like 30-point wins. I don’t think it’s gonna be that way on Friday night. They’re a good football team.”
Bloomingdale (11-1) has turned from perennial losers into championship contenders under third-year coach Max Warner. The offensive-minded Warner was once the offensive coordinator for Hillsborough High before briefly working on the Virginia Tech offensive coaching staff.
But even with all of Warner’s experience on the offensive side of the ball, the Bulls have become known for what they can do to teams on defense.
Bloomingdale (11-1) has built its success this year off of a smothering defense that has posted six shutouts through 12 games and has given several teams trouble.
“They’re pretty good,” Peacock said of the Bulls defense. “They put a lot of pressure on you. They’re an aggressive, linebacker-blitz type defense. They’ve got big bodies and a lot of kids who will be playing at the next level.”
So far in the playoffs, it’s been a recipe for success for the Bulls.
In the first round of the playoffs against Riverdale, the Bulls held an offense that averages 400 rushing yards a game to just 23 yards at halftime. Bloomingdale would go on to win handily, 45-8.
Last week against Palmetto, Bloomingdale’s defense stepped up once again — albeit in a different manner.
The Bulls pass rush harassed Palmetto quarterback Anthony Marino all night long, and the explosive quarterback had completed just 2-of-11 passes by halftime. Bloomingdale held on for the 21-14 win.
On defense, it all starts at the line of scrimmage for Bloomingdale.
The Bulls play a 3-4 defense anchored by nose tackle Quinton McCoy (6-foot-4, 256 pounds). Around McCoy are speedy defensive ends in Malik Womack (six sacks, 14.5 tackles for a loss) and Ethan Mcaniff (two sacks, 44 tackles).
Though the Bulls were missing two linebackers against Palmetto, top tackler Landon Moody (74 tackles) is expected to return for Friday night, fortifying an already tough defense.
However, it’s not as clear of a picture as to what the Bulls will do on offense. Starting quarterback Lance Alderson broke his foot in the second-to-last regular season game, and the team has been using dual-threat option Charles Montgomery and converted safety Jon Catala since.
But Montomgery was injured in last week’s playoff game, and didn’t return as Catala sealed the game with a late touchdown pass.
With their primary — and possibly secondary — quarterback hurt, the Bulls will likely lean on their relentless rushing game.
Two running backs in Dom Gonnella and Levi Williams lead the offensive attack for Bloomingdale out of the backfield. Gonnella, who also plays defensive back, is the team’s power runner. He averages 56 rushing yards a game and has scored 11 touchdowns.
Williams serves as a speedy complement to Gonnella. The senior averages 60 rushing yards per game and has scored eight times this season.
If Montgomery is healthy enough to play, look for him to run as well.
The sophomore leads the team with 82 carries and has rushed for 10 touchdowns. Against Palmetto, Montgomery rushed for 165 yards before exiting with an injury.
A big reason as to why Bloomingdale has found so much success on the ground this year has been the offensive line. The Bulls have five offensive lineman standing 6-foot-2 or taller, with Ethan Carde (6-foot-8, 330 pounds) being the most imposing player to get past.
“They have stud athletes who can do a lot of big things in the backfield that’s dangerous,” Peacock said. “They probably have the biggest offensive line we’ve faced all year.”
While this success is new for Bloomingdale, the Bulls didn’t make it to the regional championship game on accident.
On Friday night, they’ll find out just how far they’ve come against the defending state champions.