Grizzly discovery: Bears halt Eagles’ county dominance to start post-Kramer era

Malique Dieudonne (10) had two touchdown catches in Palmetto Ridge's 38-0 whitewashing of Naples on Thursday. GLENN CHRISTOPHER/SPECIAL TO CSI

BY SCOTT SHOOK
SPECIAL TO CSI

Palmetto Ridge’s coaches and players looked happy — OK, perhaps very happy — after ending Naples High’s 36-game winning streak over Collier County opponents with a 38-0 season-opening trashing of the Golden Eagles on Thursday night.

The Bears hosted a Naples team playing its first game without legendary coach Bill Kramer — who retired last year after guiding the Eagles to 216 wins and two state championships — in 23 years. Rick Martin, a former player on one of Kramer’s two state title teams, was making his varsity debut as Naples’ new head coach.

Of course, it would have been understandable if the Palmetto Ridge players and coaches celebrated wildly after beating the Eagles for the first time in school history. (Palmetto Ridge High School opened its doors in 2004.) Instead, the Bears did not appear overly emotional as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

As the old saying goes, they acted like they’d been there before. Which, ironically, they haven’t been.

Last season, Naples shut out Palmetto Ridge, 37-0. In 2018, it was 42-0 in favor of Naples.

“First time ever,” said Palmetto Ridge coach Chris Toukonen, savoring the win. “It feels great. I think over the past five years we’ve continuously gotten better. We’ve run into some hard luck — especially our quarterback situation the last couple of years. This year we’re lucky to have two — actually three — quarterbacks. Our starting quarterback the first five games last year is our third quarterback. We actually have some depth there. It was hard for us the past couple of years because we really didn’t have a quarterback.”

PHOTO GALLERY: View images of the Bears-Eagles season opener

“We’ve worked hard,” Toukonen said matter-of-factly immediately after addressing his team following the game. “Our coaching staff has worked hard. Our players have worked hard.  

“For months we were just praying to have a season,” he said, referring to the challenges brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The Bears played like a team that has been looking forward to getting their first win over Naples.  The Eagles — sporting a wholly different uniform scheme in Martin’s debut — did not play well.

Toukonen used two quarterbacks extensively against Naples … and both looked good.

“Evan Rodriguez,” Toukonen said, “he’s been a two-year starter; this is his third year starting.”

Senior Evan Rodriguez threw three touchdown passes against Naples while splitting time under center with senior newcomer Gabe Seifert. GLENN CHRISTOPHER/SPECIAL TO CSI

Rodriguez, a senior, has thrown for 1,593 yards with nine touchdown passes and seven interceptions in his high school career.

The Bears’ other quarterback is senior Gabe Seifert, who moved to Naples from Wisconsin, where he had great success as a starting QB.

“Gabe Seifert came down from Wisconsin,” Toukonen said. “He’s been a two-year starter. His record is 21-3 as a starter. He was in the state semifinals last year for the team he played for.”

Seifert threw 24 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions in two years with New Berlin (Wisc.). He threw for 2,420 yards and ran for 565 yards and nine touchdowns. 

Toukonen used both Rodriguez and Seifert liberally against Naples, and the two of them both looked poised in the pocket — each capable of picking up yards with their feet.

“They both can run,” Toukonen said. “Any time you’re in the shotgun a lot, you have to have that threat.”

In addition to the fine work turned in by Rodriguez and Seifert, muscular Bears running back Jaden Booker picked up the tough yards against the always-rugged Naples defense. Booker is coming off a big freshman year and looks ready to put up some big numbers on the ground this season. He’s already holding offers from Michigan, Pittsburgh, Nebraska, Georgia Tech, Liberty and Toledo.

“He ran for 1,200 yards last year as a freshman,” Toukonen said. “Obviously, Naples is good. They have studs up on that defensive line. In the trenches we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to be able to run the ball. Smiley, as we refer to him … Jaden Booker … is going to have one heck of a year.”

Toukonen also has a pair of high-profile senior receivers in 6-foot-3 Kamonte Grimes, a Nebraska commit, and 6-2 Malique Dieudonne, who has offers from South Florida, Southern Mississippi, Coastal Carolina, East Tennessee State, Liberty, Navy and Temple. 

Kamonte Grimes burns the Naples D for a second-quarter touchdown Thursday. GLENN CHRISTOPHER/SPECIAL TO CSI

Both receivers looked good against Naples. Grimes made a nice catch on a pass from Rodriguez to give the Bears a 17-0 lead with 9:27 left in the first half. Dieudonne hauled in two touchdown catches. Rodriguez threw all three touchdown passes.

Toukonen sees room for improvement with his veteran wideouts.

“I think our receivers need to step up,” he said. “I don’t think our receivers played that well today. Obviously we have a lot of work to do.”

Defensively, the Bears were successful in bottling up Naples’ vaunted ground game, allowing only 57 yards on 37 carries. Palmetto Ridge defenders consistently chopped down Naples junior running backs Dustin McGill and Stanley Bryant, who combined for 37 yards on 16 carries.  Naples’ junior quarterback, Dominiq Ponder, rushed 13 times for 16 yards and completed two passes for 27 yards. Ponder had difficulty with the snap all evening as Naples fumbled eight times.

The last time Naples had been shut out? It was nearly 14 years to the day when Immokalee registered a 28-0 victory at NHS on Sept. 15, 2006.

“No doubt,” Toukonen said, “I’m happy with our defensive performance. Jean Perez, our inside linebacker, led our team in tackles the last two years. He’s been a stalwart. Our safety, Jhordan Inniss, was on the all-area team last year. He’s one of the best players in Southwest Florida.  Payton Wood had a heckuva game.”

Instead of celebrating his team’s landmark win over Naples, Toukonen is looking forward to getting back to work during the bye week, which will be followed by an Oct. 2 visit from Lely. The Trojans eked out a 21-19 season-opening home win over Golden Gate on Thursday. 

“Obviously it’s a nice win,” Toukonen said. “We’ve been prepping for this season for a couple of years.

“We have a bye week next week that we refer to as a work week. We’ve got to get better in a lot of areas. We had a lot of mistakes for the first game of the year. This is the time of the year we, as a coaching staff, have been working toward. We’re going to be in full gear every day. We’re going to get after it. Fix all our mistakes and get better. We have a real tough Lely team in two weeks. Lely was a playoff team last year. So we have a lot of work to do before we play them.”