My second football season at the Palatka Daily News was looking an awful lot like my first. There was not much hope of watching a postseason game.
By Friday, October 15, 2004, we were in the backside of the season. Palatka was having one of its worst years in a long time at 2-4. Interlachen was a better team, but if better meant winning more than zero games in a season, that they were at 1-4.
And then there was Crescent City, the team I got to see for the first four weeks of the season. For the better part of my existence at the Daily News, the Raiders have been the team I've covered. I know that 22-mile ride on US-17 very well from the office south to Wisnoski Field at Wiltcher Stadium.
The Raiders, though, were coming of a humiliating loss, one of the most humiliating in their history the week before. They traveled to Interlachen to face the county rival. And the Rams picked that night to beat the Raiders, 13-8. Why was it humiliating? Because the Rams won for only the second time since 1997 on the football field, the only other win coming in 2001 against Fort White.
While the Rams were celebrating on their home field (it was the only game I didn't cover that season involving Crescent City, my boss wanting to see both county teams play while I got to see Palatka lose at North Marion), the Raiders were left scratching their heads wondering if there was anything positive left in their season at 1-4.
Their head coach was a new guy. He was a Georgia boy named Brad Waggoner. Now Waggoner came to the school as a guy who learned the ropes from being a college grad assistant. Heck, he worked under Mike Dubose at Alabama and was friends with him. He had just turned 30 years old that August and getting the Crescent City head coaching gig was pretty important to him.
He was hired by Joe Warren, who was relatively new to the job as Crescent City's principal. I was not in favor of him firing the previous coach, Gordon Roberts, a solid, good all-around man who had coached that team for 10 seasons. They had a bad year in 2003 and a 56-14 loss in the final regular-season game that season at St. Petersburg Catholic was the final straw.
So it was my job to interview Waggoner weekly to talk about the upcoming opponent. And he didn't sound all that positive going into the next game, which, oh by the way, was the biggest District 4-2B game for the Raiders that season.
It was a trip to Orlando to face the district favorite that season, Lake Highland Prep. Now Lake Highland Prep wasn't exactly burning the football landscape either at 2-3, but their blowout loss the same night the Raiders were losing to Interlachen was a little more explainable – the Highlanders were losing to state-power South Sumter of Bushnell, 49-7.
Still, you can explain losing to a state power. You can't explain losing to a doormat like Interlachen.
And in interviewing Waggoner, he did his best to be upbeat in the face of who he was playing.
"Lake Highland Prep dresses only 24 kids, depending on what they bring to the game," he started. "We're probably going to dress 26. Lake Highland is probably going to be the best team we've played this year. They are a sound football team with a good running back (Tony Watts) and a big quarterback (6-foot-5 Robert Kass). The difference is that they seem to be more polished."
And they were senior dominated. These Highlanders looked too tough for the scrappiest of Crescent City teams. Worse, Waggoner was already about to start his fourth quarterback in six games that season ... his fourth! His first quarterback lost the job, then lost a spot on the team. His second quarterback got hurt. His third quarterback wasn't really a starting quarterback ... just filling a void.
Now he was about to start a new guy behind center. And that guy was Louis Haines. You could've pardoned him if he was just a little green because, well, he was! Haines was a freshman.
Yeah, perfect timing to go send a freshman out to play against seniors and juniors. Good luck with that!
On top of that, Waggoner had already shifted every single player on his offensive line around to play every part of the line by now. And he had two more players – talented running back D.J. Johnson and senior wide receiver Cordae Mungin – who weren't going to start for disciplinary reasons.
After this phone call, I started wondering why they were going to Orlando let alone me going. This had every earmark of a bloodbath.
But we were all ready for Friday night football. My boss was staying in town to watch Palatka take on Nease with a talented junior left-handed quarterback that lost in a shootout the year before to Palatka's Panthers. That quarterback's name was Tim Tebow. Our other football writer, a stringer who used to be my boss' assistant, was on his way to Palm Bay to watch Interlachen take on Melbourne Central Christian.
And I was set to make the trip to Orlando. By October of 2004, I had been in Palatka for 14 months. I rarely had the opportunity to go to Orlando unless my girlfriend at the time had the want to go to Downtown Disney. But the way I went was to take US-17 south into San Mateo, then veer off onto State Road-100 for what is a boring, dark, desolate, 24-mile ride into Bunnell. From there, I take US-1 down to Ormond Beach and pick up I-95 for 15 miles until jumping onto I-4 for what would be about a 45 mile trip. These days to go Orlando, I just take US-17 south until getting to SR-472 and then onto I-4. It's longer, but I'm not going away to come back in if you understand what I'm saying.
I had left at about 4:15 p.m., so I knew I'd have plenty of time before the 7:30 p.m. start. By the time I got off at Exit 85 just outside the heart of Orlando and wove my way to the school, I can see the man-made lake out by the entrance and the long, winding road that led me to the athletic fields. My first thought was "Wow, someone has money here."
I would find myself saying that a lot over the years at the prep schools I would go to cover games.
Lake Highland Prep is a school in which not only the student body is enthusiastic, but so are the parents who come to the games. You would think they were one of the kids. I picked up my roster and found my way upstairs to a fairly spacious press box where I scoped my seat. But as I soon found out, where I was sitting wasn't going to be all that comfortable. My boss calls these people "hanger-onners" because they really have no business of being up in a press box other than to hang out with people they know and seem important.
So 15 minutes before kickoff, I wasn't feeling all that comfortable in a suddenly crowded press box.
I was over next to a kid who was going to be doing the public address for the game. Not one of the "hanger-onners" standing behind us. Oh, heck no! This poor kid, who was a junior at the time, got the nod to do the introductions. Not only was he working the PA, but he was also having to do the non-timing part of the scoreboard.
Where the hell was the kid's help!? This was just ridiculous. I even told him so, but he didn't want to hear it. He shrugged it off and he said it was all good and he didn't mind. So I made him a deal: "You get me in next to you and I'll help you with the scoreboard."
Deal! Suddenly, I wasn't so uncomfortable in my spot anymore.
The game started and Lake Highland Prep had the ball first. And they didn't waste time taking the ball down the field. It was four plays in 57 yards and the final play was a beautifully thrown pass by Kass to his favorite receiver, Grant Handley, for a 30-yard score. The extra-point kick was missed, but the Highlanders had the lead at 6-0.
The first possession for Crescent City with freshman Haines in charge didn't go so well and after a three-and-out, the Highlanders had the ball again at the Raider 47. They got to the 21, then Kass handed off to his other running back, Kory Duffy, for a touchdown run to make it 12-0 lead as the 2-point conversion run failed.
Unlike the jitters of the first drive, Haines and the Raiders settled in and got moving this time around. And it was at this point Waggoner decided to unleash a weapon that he had been saving for weeks.
The double handoff. Haines handed off to senior fullback Shantae Hill, but before Hill could plow into the line, he handed the ball off to the wingback, who in this particular case was Hakim Clayton. Clayton got 17 yards on the play and a first down.
At that point, I was starting to wonder if Waggoner had it in him to run that play all night.
But it also loosened up Lake Highland Prep's defense. That was for sure. Running the ball was becoming a little easier. And from the Highlanders' 27, Waggoner had Hill fake a double handoff so beautifully that the defense pursued Clayton and Hill had a wide-open right side of the field to run all day for the touchdown.
Haines missed on the 2-point conversion, but Pandora's box was opened. You can see the visibly shaking heads of Lake Highland defenders coming off the field as if they had no idea of what was sprung on them.
It was a new game and I was glad to put those six points up on the scoreboard for the young man doing the P.A.
If the Raider touchdown rattled the Highlanders when they came back out offensively, think again. For the third straight possession, Lake Highland marched down the field and C.J. Weaver finished a 62-yard, 11-play drive with a 3-yard scoring run to make it 20-6 after Kass bounced right and got into the end zone on the 2-point conversion with 8:11 to go before halftime.
But now, Waggoner was about to introduce the Highlanders to the talented D.J. Johnson at running back. Only two weeks earlier, he had been the second quarterback in charge of the offense, but hurt his ankle, then did something that week that forced Waggoner to use discipline on him and sit out the first quarter.
The Raiders marched down to the Highlander 4 on the next drive and decided without a halfway decent kicker to go for it on fourth down. Haines handed off to Hill, but he got stopped at the 1, forcing the ball back to Lake Highland Prep.
It was a crushing blow to say the least and as they headed into the locker room down 20-6, maybe they weren't up to Lake Highland Prep's level after all. The "consolation" of a loss to the Highlanders was that if they won their next two district games against Winter Park Trinity Prep and Pierson Taylor, they'd still more than likely get into the postseason as a district runner-up. That wasn't so bad.
I don't know if it was going through Waggoner's mind at halftime. I never asked him that, but he knew the circumstances of a loss anyway.
After being stopped on their first drive of the third quarter, the Raiders had to punt the ball back to the Highlanders.
Finally, they got a break they were looking for.
Kass was sacked by one of the heart and souls of this team, Lashon Swilley, a player that previous coach Roberts thought the world of as a linebacker. Kass fumbled and Swilley came up with the ball at the Highlanders 25. On the first play from scrimmage, Haines handed off to Hill, going slightly right. Then at the last moment, Johnson, working as a wingback, came from the other end and took the second handoff from Hill. He was off to the races and untouched as he got into the end zone to make it 20-12. The 2-point pass from Haines to wide receiver Chevelle Taylor fell short, but with 3:04 left in the third quarter, the Raiders were suddenly close again.
The Raiders then forced the Highlanders to punt again and started at their own 23 late in the third quarter. They marched down the field 77 yards in eight plays and had the Highlanders playing the guessing game on what they were going to use as a run. Hill, who would finish with 134 yards on 20 carries, gained 14, 17 and 20 yards on runs, while Johnson, who would put up 115 yards on 11 carries, would deliver a 21-yard run.
Then Waggoner gave the Highlanders a new wrinkle to think about: He had Haines spread out wide as a receiver and Johnson, the former quarterback now being used as a halfback-wingback, taking the snap from center. He got to the outside, followed his blockers and was in for the 5-yard score that made it 20-18. They went for the 2-point conversion run, but Haines got stopped and with 7:43 to go.
Still, it was a battle to the finish.
No, I wasn't expecting that. I was expecting the Highlanders to be smart enough to try to defense what was taking place at halftime. Instead, the Raiders were exacerbating the situation further. All the while, I'm looking at the young kid doing PA that I was helping do the scoreboard while keeping my own statistics and I can sense his feeling queasy over what was happening.
"I still think you guys are going to find a way to win this one," I told him.
Five seconds later, though, I said, "But if I'm you and your fans, I'm not liking what I'm watching, either."
We both got back into our jobs and watched Lake Highland Prep move down the field. But once again, the Highlanders turned the ball over to the Raiders when Kass fumbled and Taylor was there to recover at the Crescent City 26 with 6:58 to go.
Oh, my goodness. They weren't really going to pull this upset off, were they? Not after the Interlachen debacle, were they? Noooooooo! This just couldn't be happening. Suddenly, the Lake Highland parent "hanger-onners" were sounding off, yelling what they could from the press box to get the team up, even if the kids didn't hear them.
On the first play after the fumble, Haines handed straight off to Johnson and the sophomore weaved through and dodged tacklers down the Crescent City sidelines until getting tackled at the Lake Highland 26 for a 48-yard gain. The clock continued to tick away. But two Hill runs netted one yard and two more incompletions gave the Highlanders the ball back at their 25 with 4:20 to go.
It looked as if they may finally take control of this game.
Then the Raiders got another break.
On the first play after the change of possession, linebacker and all-around standout athlete Rudy Davis came from the outside and put a hard hit on Kass. The quarterback fumbled and Davis recovered the ball at the 24 with 4:15 left.
Just like that, Crescent City had the ball back and in Highlander territory.
The Raiders ran the ball, but were stopped. They were content to take as much time off the clock and not call a timeout. On second down, Hill got stopped for a 1-yard gain. The clock still ticked away, now it was under three minutes to go.
Haines, acting as if he was in no hurry, dropped back to pass, but was sacked for a loss of 12 yards.
The clock continued to run. We were nearing the two-minute mark. It was fourth and 20.
I'm not sure at that point if I could even hesitate to guess if there was such a thing as a fourth-and-20 call. Heck, I'm pretty sure Waggoner didn't have one either. But somewhere between the moment Haines got sacked and he got back behind center that the team's other wingback, Cornelius White, had his ear.
With the clock continuing to run, Haines dropped back once more to pass. He got enough protection to let go of the ball. From there, it was a jump ball. And the receiver came down with the ball at the Highlander 2 for a first down and goal.
That receiver was Cornelius White, who used all 6-foot-2 of his torso to out-jump the cornerback to give the Raiders four chances to take the lead.
Down to two timeouts, Lake Highland Prep wasn't using any of their timeouts just yet. Neither was Waggoner, who was feeling awfully good at that point after the 32-yard pass play.
Haines handed off to Hill, who barreled through the line and into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 1:06 left to play. The important 2-point conversion went left, but Hill was stopped short and it remained a four-point lead with 66 seconds to go.
The Raiders had problems in kicking all season long. And once again, their kickoff team failed them as the ball went squibbing up the middle of the field and was returned to the Lake Highland Prep 40.
All Kass and his team had to do was go 60 yards to win the game. On the first play of the drive, Kass dropped back and found Handley for a 20-yard strike to the Raider 40.
Uh-oh, this isn't happening, is it?
A run of more than 10 yards was brought back to the Highlander 46 on the next play due to a holding call, the eighth penalty of the night against the Highlanders. Two plays later, the Highlanders gambled.
They darn near won, too.
Kass dropped back and found single coverage between Handley and Taylor. He lofted a pass out there that just eluded Taylor's hand and into Handley's arms. Taylor recovered in time to get Handley out of bounds, but not before setting up the Highlanders on the Raider 5-yard line with 26 seconds to go.
Uh-oh, this isn't really happening, is it?
On the next play, Watts, who quietly had rushed for 109 yards on 19 carries, slithered his way to the right side of the field and into the end zone for the touchdown that gave the Highlanders the lead.
But near where the offensive line was located, I can see a couple of yellow hankies laying there. I turned to my new young friend and he was shell-shocked and borderline angry.
"Oh, come on! That wasn't a hold!" he shouted from his vantage point. I turned to him and said, "I think they're calling this a hold."
And that's what the head official called: Holding against a lineman, negating the touchdown. Worse, another flag was thrown after the call was made. This time, it was for unsportsmanlike conduct against a Highlanders player who spiked the ball in disgust after the touchdown was negated.
Oh my, this really did happen. Lake Highland Prep went from leading 26-24 with 20 seconds to go to being behind by four points again and now backed up to the Raider 29-yard line after the penalties had been accounted for. Suddenly, there were a lot of angry Lake Highland Prep fans in front of me and down below in the bleachers and behind me in "hanger-onner" alley.
It was first and goal from the 29, now. On the first play, Kass dropped back looking for Handley, but Taylor was there to knock the ball away.
Second down and goal from the 29, 13 seconds left. Kass dropped back again, but this time, linebacker Quentin Wilson came on a late blitz up the middle and forced Kass to miss his target in the end zone by a lot.
Third down and goal from the 29, seven seconds left. Kass dropped back again. He looked for Handley once more, but Taylor was there to knock the ball away again. I looked up at the clock figuring that was it.
Nope. There was 0.6 seconds left. This was not the Lake Highland Prep people running the scoreboard ... or me for that matter. This was the clock operator on the other side of me.
Fourth down and goal from the 29, 0.6 seconds left. How many more chances did Kass need to get the job finished?
He had one last chance. He dropped back seven steps, saw the field and looked one last time for Handley in the back of the end zone. This time around, Taylor and D.J. Johnson were both back there to defend. The ball was deflected by both defenders as all three crashed to the turf.
The ball landed harmlessly on the ground.
Crescent City players went nuts. They acted as if they just won the state title. It wasn't, but it was darn near close to one.
They did the obligatory handshakes in the center of the field as Lake Highland Prep fans stood stunned and shocked by the outcome. How could you not? The Highlanders finished with 365 yards of offense compared to 311 for the Raiders. The Raiders frustrated Kass into 4-of-14 passing for 116 yards and a touchdown.
As for Haines, he was just 2-of-8 passing for 34 yards, but when that big throw was needed on the fourth-and-20 situation with under two minutes to go, he delivered that 32-yard pass to White.
And walking away from the field and back to where the Raiders' locker room was, I can hear from the outside a happy and excited group of players and coaches celebrating the win. They had reason to be happy, most importantly no turnovers in the game.
I found a lot of happy players to interview after this one: from Haines to White to Hill to Waggoner, who didn't have to regret taking over this team by any means anymore after one of the most important wins the program had seen.
"I can't say enough how proud I am of the kids," he said. "There are people saying the program is not going in the right way. But we've stayed the path. We've lost about eight kids for one reason or another, and the ones who are left are committed to being here. We got it done making plays."
That they did. I left from the field sometime after 10 p.m., knowing I wasn't going to make it back in time to write my story in the office. So I had planned to go to the Orlando Sentinel and type the story on the Internet there using our email system.
By the time I got to the paper and found my way to the newsroom and was told how the computer system worked and how I could get to the Internet, I called Andy, my boss, to tell him what happened.
"Well I'll be darned," was his reaction as he was also seething over Nease's coach running the score up on Palatka in a 59-7 victory as Nease had a 52-7 lead after three quarters, telling me he had Tebow continue to throw after the game was long decided.
Then he said something I guarantee I will never hear again in my journalism career.
"Go and write all you can on it."
You know when anyone says that to me that it's like giving me a pass to freely write every ... single ... last ... detail. It took over an hour to write the story, but by 11:45 p.m., I was done writing it and doing the boxscore of the game. I called Andy back and he gave me the final count on the story once he copied the story and put it into our QuickWire systems.
Forty inches. Yes ... that's 4-0.
Hey, he said, "Write all you can!"
I had to wait a half hour but once he and our night editor Bob had looked at the story, he gave me the OK to go home. Turns out Interlachen also won that night as well, 41-10, over Melbourne Central Catholic.
And what did the victory do for Crescent City? The next week, I had another road trip, this time to Winter Park to see the Raiders face the Trinity Prep Saints. They won that game and when I found out from my friends at the Leesburg Commercial that Wildwood, which Crescent City had beaten in a district game a month earlier, had beaten Lake Highland Prep as well, the Raiders had won the district regular season title with one game left against Pierson Taylor at home.
I was proud to walk alongside Waggoner in front of Trinity Prep's building near where the Crescent City buses were and tell him about that Wildwood win over Lake Highland Prep. A smile came over his face. He turned around to tell his players who were on the buses already, but had the windows down to tell them about Wildwood's win and that they were district champions.
I smiled. Compared to where the program was two weeks earlier after that humiliating loss against winless-on-the-field-since-2001 Interlachen, they came a long, long way. The next week, with that double handoff still mesmerizing opponents, Crescent City tore into provincial rival Pierson Taylor to finish the district season at 4-0 and improve to 4-4 for the season.
But the happy times ended there. The rematch with St. Petersburg Catholic at home was a disaster as the Barons steamrolled the Raiders, 66-20. The Raiders still had their state tournament game to play, their first in four years, and it was at home against a very good Dixie County High team from Cross City.
Like all the other home games that year, I got to cover this one, too. The teams were tied at 12-all at halftime, but the Bears went on a 19-0 run in the second half and that was the end of their season at 4-6.
Talking with Waggoner after the season, he was satisfied with how the team came around starting with that Lake Highland Prep game. He was looking forward to the 2005 season and all the great things he thought his team would do then.
Sadly, though, there'd be no 2005 season. In December 2004, Waggoner, homesick and wanting to be near family again, got a job at a new football program at the Daughters of Revolution School in Alabama. He would be back in familiar territory.
Fast forward to 2014 and I'm having my first conversation with Brad Waggoner since he left. He said the job at DAR was a disaster and he bounced around from school to school in both Alabama and in Georgia. All along, he said he wanted to be a college coach, just like he was a a grad assistant before he took the job at Crescent City.
In 2014, being persistent paid off for him as he became a quarterbacks coach and offensive recruitment coordinator for coach Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, where now at 40 years old, he's married and the father of a 3-year-old.
It was good to have that conversation not that long ago. He told me over the phone he still had regret over leaving Crescent City the way he did for a program that was to bring him closer to home, but instead, never got off the ground, prompting him to leave the school almost immediately. But he did say one thing that put a silver lining over the whole situation
"The best thing happening was that Al Wisnoski took the job because he deserved it," Waggoner said of the longtime assistant who finally got the chance to be the head coach of the program from 2005-09 when illness finally forced him to leave the job. Al Wisnoski passed away on May 31, 2011.
"He put so much time and effort into that place and honestly, I wouldn't have made it through that year without him. He calmed me down and encouraged me. Looking back, it was a blessing in disguise and gave the man who deserved that job the job."
Wisnoski would take the Raiders to three more postseason appearances in 2005, '07 and '09 with the middle year being a 10-0 perfect regular season.
But the resurrection of the program began on a mid-October Friday night in 2004 when a flailing football team was looking for a spark, a direction to go in when they seemed once again lost in a storm.
It was that night in Orlando everything changed. To this day, it is the best football game I have ever covered since I've been at the Daily News. Nothing has matched the drama and intensity of that night at Lake Highland Prep.
Brad Waggoner may have been the coach for one year, but his impact was indelible to turning things around at Crescent City. I was fortunate enough to be there when that turnaround took place.