Naples' Marc Viechec (25) and Devin Moore (20) combine with a partially visible Max Hussian (32) to stop North Fort Myers' Hunter Kobylanski on a fourth-and-goal play early in Friday night's regional final at Naples High. GLENN CHRISTOPHER/SPECIAL TO CSI
The game was over. Naples was leading North Fort Myers 23-0 in the closing seconds, about to earn its second straight appearance in the Class 6A state football semifinals.
If the guys were permitted to use their cell phones on the sideline, they likely would’ve been checking in on the other regional final — Miami Northwestern vs. Miami Central — to determine whether the Golden Eagles would stay at home or travel to the east coast for the semifinals.
Yet there was the Naples sideline … still full of intensity, both animated and focused on what was happening on the field. The Eagles defense, which started the game with a goal-line stand, stood with its goal line just a few yards away as the Red Knights attempted a face-saving touchdown.
Loobert Denelus knocked down a fourth-down pass, and the celebration was on at Naples High School’s Staver Field. Soon thereafter, the Golden Eagles (12-1) learned they would, in fact, be hosting Northwestern (8-5) next week in a rematch of last year’s semifinal.
“The defense was remarkable,” Bill Kramer said after Naples claimed its seventh regional crown (inclding three out of the last four) in his 21 years as Golden Eagles head coach. “… At the end when they did not give in, when the game’s well decided, it doesn’t matter, but they are not going to let them score, you just love that determination and that grit and realize that the scoreboard’s irrelevant. If we’re going to be excellent, we can’t settle for the success that we’ve had.”
Denelus, a senior defensive tackle, said it was “really important” to get the shutout, and not just for his unit’s psyche. He admitted to having some extra motivation.
“And we get doughnuts on Saturdays when we have shutouts,” he cracked.
Looking to make a strong statement right out of the gate, North Fort Myers (9-4) put the Naples defense on its heels, advancing the ball to the 1-yard line.
On fourth down, North running back Hunter Kobylanski took a handoff and was met and taken down just shy of the goal line by Naples senior defensive end Max Hussian, freshman defensive back Devin Moore and senior outside linebacker Marc Viechec. (Kobylanski was injured on the play and did not return.)
“It was a great momentum-changer because they started out really good,” Denelus said of the goal-line stand. “They really drove down the field in between the 10s. We just new we had to play high and nasty in the red zone.”
The fact that Moore contributed on the stop was not surprising to Denelus. It’s a two-way street between Naples’ defensive line and secondary.
“Our D-line has to help out our DBs in the passing game, and vice versa — DBs help out the D-line with pressure in the backfield,” Denelus said.
After the postgame celebration, some Naples coaches, players and supporters lingered on the field, checking their phones for updates on the Northwestern-Central game (a tense affair that Northwestern won, 19-15).
Had Central won, the Golden Eagles would’ve traveled to Miami for Friday night’s state semifinal. Instead, Naples will host a defending state champion Northwestern squad that returns just one of the many playmakers who helped the Bulls dominate the Golden Eagles, 42-7, in last year’s state semifinal. (Senior Jacquez Stuart had a 45-yard run — his only touch in that state semifinal.)
Asked about which opponent he preferred, the answer was simple for Kramer.
“I just want to be home, and that’s the only way we can be home,” he said. “Obviously, I prefer Northwestern at home than Central on the road.”
Said Naples quarterback Drew Wiltsie: “Oh yeah, of course; that’d be awesome (to host). Last year was a tough game. Obviously, home field advantage is great, our fans are great, and if we can host them, it would be really good to show them what we got.”
The Naples offense did what it often does: ground and pound opponents into submission. Chez Mellusi ran for a buck-79, Elan Sommala scored two touchdowns on 135 yards rushing, and C.J. Dietzel channeled his “inner Chez” on a 53-yard touchdown — his only carry of the game.
But there was one play the Naples offense would love to have back, especially the senior signal-caller Wiltsie. In the latter stages of the third quarter, Wiltsie missed wide open tight end Dominic Mammarelli on what surely would’ve been a big play.
We know the Naples offense is going to hang its hat on running the football. But to win a state title, they may to need to mix in an unexpected pass play or two when the opportunity presents itself. The Golden Eagles went 0 for 4 on pass attempts Friday, with Wiltsie only getting two of those tries. (Sommala and wide receiver Joel Gresbrink each made a throw on gadget plays).
“Yeah, we need to make those,” Kramer said. “Next week, we’ve got to make those … and the following week. … There’s two weeks left, and you can’t miss home run shots.
“Now, a part of that is protection, too. (Wiltsie) is getting hit right as he throws it. But we’ll shore it up.”
Wiltsie knows one big pass play can be the difference as to whether Naples plays for (and perhaps wins) a state championship or not.
“Those plays are always game-changers,” said Wiltsie, who’s completed 32 of 78 attempts for 478 yards and five touchdowns this season. “We look for those plays; we want to prepare for those plays each week. I missed him tonight; and next week, I know I’m not going to miss him.”
• Naples’ Nick Herber is nearly perfect kicking field goals this season — a season-long 42-yarder in the fourth quarter Friday was his seventh field goal in eight attempts.
“He’s improved throughout the year, and that’s great because the timing’s right for that,” Kramer said after Herber booted a 40-yarder in last week’s regional semifinal win over Fort Myers. “… We have a history of really good kickers. (Kicking) Coach (Tony) Perez-Benitoa does a great job with them. They’re as much a part (of the team) as anyone else. And special teams are special for us, so our guys know how critical the kicking game is.”
• Do the Golden Eagles know that the margin for error is only going to get tougher from here on out? Penalties, particularly the unsportsmanlike variety, have been an issue in several games this season, and that continued in Friday night’s win. Just last week, after their win over Fort Myers, Kramer and Mellusi lamented how the Golden Eagles had to get that fixed. Kramer used the word “selfish” to describe the decisions of some of his offenders.
• Approximately 30 Naples football alums, including a few from the school’s two state title teams (2001 and 2007), were acknowledged at halftime. Many of them attended the Golden Eagles’ Thanksgiving night walkthrough.
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