Kamonte Grimes leads the Palmetto Ridge High School football team onto the field prior to its Oct. 4 home win over Gulf Coast High. GREGG HARDY/CSI
The Palmetto Ridge High School football team came out of a trying season last fall with a renewed perspective and a healthier resolve.
And now the Bears are poised for big things … whenever they can take the field again.
“What we went through last year made us tougher,” said rising senior receiver Malique Dieudonne. “We kept on going and once we started getting right, we started crushing teams. We learned that things happen that are beyond your control. The only thing you can control is how hard you play.”
Before the 2019 season even started, the Bears lost one of their biggest leaders on and off the field when linebacker and Division I prospect Colby Singletary was killed in a July automobile accident. With the team trying to heal from that devastating blow, quarterback Evan Rodriguez suffered a concussion in the preseason game — forcing freshman Hosea Booker into the lineup for the first five games of the season.
Palmetto Ridge’s slate included a murderer’s row of playoff teams — Tampa Catholic, Victory Christian, Bishop Verot, Naples and Lely — with the Bears coming up short in all five. Rodriguez returned and led the Bears to four straight wins, putting them in position to make the playoffs with a Week 11 win against 8-1 Port Charlotte. Palmetto Ridge fell short in that contest, 29-21, to finish 4-6.
The Bears were looking forward to spring practices and the chance to see how much they’ve improved. More importantly, they were looking to put the hardships and tragedy of 2019 in the rearview mirror. The COVID-19 pandemic interfered with those plans, but it hasn’t taken away the optimism about Palmetto Ridge’s upcoming season.
“Honestly, if we keep working hard and stay on top of everything, there’s no reason we can’t be the best team in Collier County,” Dieudonne said. “We’ve got so many good players and our young players went through adversity last year and should be ready to go this year.”
The Bears feature perhaps the area’s most dynamic blend of offensive talent, with four bona fide Division I prospects manning the skill positions.
Dieudonne and fellow rising senior Kamonte Grimes give Palmetto Ridge a thrilling pair of playmakers at receiver. Rising junior tight end Caleb Cousins has athleticism and physicality to go along with his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame. Already turning heads after a 1,000-yard season (followed by an appearance in the Freshman All-American Bowl, which saw him score a touchdown), running back Jaden Booker has picked up five Division I offers, including Big Ten schools Michigan and Nebraska.
“To have four Division I football players at your skill positions, that’s pretty rare,” Palmetto Ridge coach Chris Toukonen said. “Kamonte brings so much athleticism and versatility, he really can play anywhere on the field. He’s extremely knowledgeable about the game and he’s been that way since he started as a freshman for us.
“Malique has so much length and versatility. He had never played defense until last year. We put him at corner and he took to the position with his natural athleticism. Now coaches are looking at him at both corner and receiver, which tells you the kind of athlete he is.
“Caleb is already 6-foot-4, almost 6-foot-5 and by the time he’s a senior, he’ll easily be 230 or 240 pounds. He can play with his hand in the dirt or line up wide to create match-up problems for the defense.
“As for Jaden, the sky’s the limit with this kid as he continues to work in the weight room. Just from last year to this year, he’s lost that baby fat and is putting on the lean muscle. He’s a workhorse back, a kid that always is falling forward for extra yards. Big-time schools are taking notice.”
The Bears feature plenty of talent beyond those four, however. Rodriguez is coming off a monster half-season in which he completed 67 percent of his passes for more than 1,100 yards in just five games. Safety Jhordan Inniss is one of the area’s top defenders, as are linebacker Jean Perez and Manuel Exantus — all three-year starters. Palmetto Ridge also returns four offensive linemen who either started or saw extended playing time last year in Nathaniel Cypher, Ricardo Garcia, Derek Maldanato and Braden Poling.
One of the unfortunate by-products of losing spring football is it gives those players fewer chances to be seen by college recruiters.
“We were likely to have at least six or seven coaches at every practice this spring looking at our guys,” Toukonen said. “So that’s hard on the kids that don’t have all the offers yet because they’re losing opportunities to get noticed. But we’re going to do all we can for these kids and make sure they get the chance to play at the next level. We’ve got players who are going to be steals for whatever colleges get them.”
The return of Rodriguez is a thrilling prospect for the Bears, who will also use Hosea Booker in special packages to utilize his speed and give opposing defenses something to think about.
“Evan’s the man,” Grimes said. “He definitely runs the offense well. His football IQ is off the charts so losing him obviously hurt us last year. The fact that he came back and still almost made the playoffs (after starting 0-5) shows the fight and heart of everybody on the team. It really showed our potential and what we’re capable of if we stay healthy. But Hosea is also a tremendous athlete, one of the best on our team. He’s going to show people what he can do this year, too.”
Grimes, a four-star recruit by 247sports with 24 Division I offers — including Miami, Michigan, Ohio State, Tennessee and, as he announced Monday, Wisconsin — may wait until December to make his college choice.
“I originally thought I could have it done by the summer but with everything that’s going on, that’s not going to happen,” Grimes said. “It’s an important decision and I’m going to take my time with it. And I definitely want to take my (official) visits before deciding and right now, I can’t do that.”
Dieudonne is now up to seven offers — including Temple and USF. He says the recruiting process has slowed down a bit during the pandemic.
“There’s been a little bit here and there and schools are still communicating with me,” Dieudonne said. “(Palmetto Ridge defensive coordinator and recruiting director PJ Gibbs) always tells us to trust the process, so I’m sure everything will work out.”
While the Palmetto Ridge players have been working out individually during the lockdown, they’ve also been meeting with coaches remotely. Gibbs has arranged meetings via the Zoom app, allowing the Bears defenders to learn new wrinkles in the defense and coverage schemes. Toukonen said the staff has been in constant contact with the players via text messages and phone calls to make sure everyone is staying on top of schoolwork and workouts.
“It’s definitely a different time for all of us, something none of us have ever dealt with before,” Toukonen said. “But the kids are doing pretty good with all of these changes. They’re sad to miss spring football but we’re all hopeful we can get back after it as soon as we can.”
PJ Gibbs has certainly made the most of his time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like so many other educators, he’s been working from home while also helping his wife Kristen with the homeschooling of their two children, ages 8 and 6. As the Bears’ recruiting director, he’s stayed in touch with college coaches interested in bringing Palmetto Ridge players into their respective programs.
And oh yeah, he wrote a book.
Inspired by one of his coaching buddies in Pennsylvania who wrote a book about offense, Gibbs decided to do the same for defense. And thus “The Right Defense for Your Program” was born, a project that came together fairly quickly once Gibbs decided to go through with it.
“I really got started with it the weekend when we found out we weren’t going back to school,” Gibbs said. “I’ve been coaching for 21 years and have had all these experiences, so I sat down on the computer and hammered out 25 pages right away, which gave me the confidence that I could do this thing. It took me less than a month to get everything done, including the publishing. And so far the response has been unbelievable.”
Throughout his years of experience, the 40-year-old New Jersey native says he’s worked with a variety of coaches with different defensive schemes and philosophies. The book’s first four chapters break down the defenses he’s been a part of over the years, offering diagrams to explain what’s happening and why it’s happening. The book also delves into planning practices, charting tendencies of players and opponents and also building team relationships.
“It targets the youth coaches and the high school coaches just starting out, the coach that has been through a lot but maybe can find a new perspective on things,” he said. “But I also think the casual football fan and football parent can get something from it too because it’s not overwhelming from the technical standpoint. Hopefully they can see the game in a new way and understand why a play works or doesn’t work.”
The book went live on Amazon on April 8 and sold more than 100 copies in the first week, including international sales in Brazil, Germany and Japan, among others.
Gibbs’ players say his way of connecting with people makes him a great communicator and teacher of the game.
“He has this amazing energy he brought every practice and game,” said senior defensive lineman Ethan Pratt, who recently committed to Division II Walsh (Ohio) University. “When the pressure is on during the game, he’s always able to have us calm down, take a deep breath and know we’ve practiced moments just like this. And it’s true. At practice, he’s always ready to go and always knows what we’re going to do next. He’s really organized and there’s no wasted moments during practice.”
Pratt said Gibbs also knows when to push his players, especially if he senses complacency.
“There were a couple games where we felt like we were pulling away but he’d always remind us ‘Hey, it’s not over yet,’” Pratt said. “And he’d let us know we needed to keep pushing and step on the gas pedal and keep moving. He always had ways to motivate you, no matter the situation.”
Grimes said Gibbs’ preparation and attention to detail stand out.
“He’s such a competitor and he’s going to compete by any means possible,” Grimes said. “Preparation is one of his biggest assets. He stays long after practice going over film and coming up with game plans. He preaches going 100 percent every play and never being OK with just being average. He’s going to get the best out of you every time.”
Five Palmetto Ridge seniors have already made their college choices, with a few more to come.
Gibbs said by the time everyone has signed on the dotted line, this year’s class will be the biggest in school history.
In addition to Pratt’s commitment to Walsh University, fellow defensive lineman and state champion wrestler Trillyon Fils-Aime committed to NAIA school Southeastern University, where he hopes to participate in both sports; and standout linebacker Voshon Siriac committed to Division II Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio. Defensive backs Julian Valentin (Division III Concordia University Chicago) and Antonio Alvarado (Division III Loras College) round out the Bears’ five commits.
Gibbs said four other seniors — Emerson Herard, Gensley Herard, Warren Miller and Kemar Titus — are still weighing their options.