Lake Wales football

BARTOW — Tavaris Johnson knew the real work was just beginning.

Standing on the field at Bartow High, where his Lake Wales Highlanders had just completed an undefeated regular season with a 50-14 victory over the host Blue Jackets, Johnson fielded questions from reporters and acknowledged that while the team’s 10th win was an exciting milestone, his team still had a regional quarterfinal game to prepare for.

“We’ll enjoy this tonight,” Johnson said. “Tomorrow we start planning. Obviously, we’ve got to go to work.”

Johnson’s program is just two seasons removed from a 1-8 campaign in 2016. Since then, the Highlanders went 8-3 in 2017 and 10-2 in 2018. 

Now, with a perfect 10-0 mark in the 2019 regular season, the Lake Wales program has cemented itself as a force to be reckoned with in Central Florida.

“I’m just proud of this group of young men,” Johnson said. “Some of those kids were part of that 1-8 season — they did what it took.”

To detail the team’s regular season campaign is to detail its dominance. Lake Wales outscored opponents 492-71 in 10 games — an average score of 49.2 points per game while allowing just 7.1.

The Highlanders won seven games by 35 points or more, including two of which they won by a margin of more than 70 points. 

Five of those lopsided wins came on the front end of the team’s schedule, though, with closer contests in the middle of the schedule. On Oct. 4, Lake Wales topped Lely 16-3. The next week, the Highlanders topped Hardee 35-17.

Lake Wales’ closest game of the season came Oct. 18 — a 30-23 win over Sebring.

As luck would have it, that is exactly the team that the Highlanders will host at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8 in the FHSAA Class 5A-Regional 3 Quarterfinals. Lake Wales is the No. 2 in its region, while Sebring (6-4) is the No. 7 seed.

After the win at Bartow, Johnson praised his coaching staff for helping keeping his team focused through a dominant run, pointing out the amount of hours the group puts in beyond those spent in practice and games.

As the Highlanders head coach looked to the challenges of regional competition, he zeroed in on what he thought he needed to see from his team to have a deep postseason run.

 “Consistency with our level of play,” Johnson explained. “We can’t continue to make those mistakes, especially in the playoffs.”

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Contact Steven Ryzewski at sryzewski@d-r.media.

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