Rodriguez’s return pulls Bears’ offense out of hibernation

Palmetto Ridge's Kamonte Grimes (3) celebrates his 20-yard touchdown catch against Gulf Coast on Friday night. GREGG HARDY/CSI

BY GREGG HARDY
CSI EDITOR

When we last saw Evan Rodriguez (before he left Palmetto Ridge High School’s Kickoff Classic in an ambulance), he was showing off his two game-breaking weapons — throwing for approximately 150 first-half yards to Kamonte Grimes and Malique Dieudonne.

The concussion he suffered during the third quarter of the Bears’ 7-0 preseason home win over South Fort Myers was the most severe kind — Grade 3. In the days that followed, it wasn’t a question of when Rodriguez would return.

“It was more a question of if I would come back this season,” the Bears’ second-year starting quarterback said. “I had to talk to my parents for a very long time about it.”

Rodriguez called his decision to come back for Palmetto Ridge’s homecoming game against Gulf Coast an “emotional” one. Winless at the halfway point of the season and having mustered just one offensive touchdown over their first five games, the Bears needed Rodriguez.

Evan Rodriguez surveys the Gulf Coast defense before a first-quarter Palmetto Ridge touchdown. GREGG HARDY/CSI

The junior signal-caller (aided by freshman Jaden Booker’s breakout rushing performance — he had well over 100 yards in the first half alone) showed little rust Friday night. He hooked up with Grimes on a pair of touchdown strikes (20 and 77 yards) as the Bears whitewashed the Sharks, 31-0.

Now that he’s back running the show, Rodriguez said opponents should expect more fireworks from the Palmetto Ridge offense.

“We know what we’re doing. It shows,” Rodriguez said.

Besides Rodriguez’s absence, there was another mitigating factor for the Bears’ 0-5 start: their first five opponents — three of whom are undefeated — boast a combined record of 18-4.

“No doubt about it. I bet we’re the best 0-5 team in the state of Florida,” Palmetto Ridge coach Chris Toukonen said. “We played some really good teams the first couple weeks — from Victory Christian, who’s ranked No. 1 in their classification in the whole state, (to) Tampa Catholic, who’s extremely good, (to)  Bishop Verot, who’s undefeated, (to) Naples who’s undefeated. We played some tough teams. Now we’re looking forward to finishing off a couple more Collier (County) teams, and then we’ve got a really, really good Port Charlotte team to end the season.”

Palmetto Ridge hosts Immokalee and Barron Collier, respectfully, over the next two weeks before visiting arch-rival Golden Gate in the teams’ annual Battle for the Gate on Oct. 25.

If the Bears run the table, a 5-5 record at season’s end could be enough to earn a playoff berth, especially considing their strength of schedule.

PHOTO GALLERY: View images of the Sharks-Bears game

Friday night’s offensive breakout may have overshadowed a stout effort by the Bears’ defense.

“The kids really stepped up and played great,” Palmetto Ridge defensive coordinator PJ Gibbs said. “We made some key adjustments in the red zone and they responded and made some great plays. (I was) really proud of our boys (Friday night) … definitely one of the top defenses around.”

Voshon Siriac dons the Palmetto Ridge turnover chain. GREGG HARDY/CSI

Voshon Siriac led the Bears defense with 12 tackles and an interception. Gibbs said Rwoody Niace — who denied Gulf Coast a chance to get on the scoreboard by intercepting a late third-quarter pass in the end zone — played “his best game ever.”

This wasn’t the first time Palmetto Ridge’s defense showed it can stifle an opponent. The unit held Victory Christian 22 points below its season scoring average in a 6-3 loss back in Week 2.

NOTES AND QUOTES

Toukonen commended his backup quarterback, freshman Hosea Booker, who guided the Bears offense while Rodriguez was sidelined. “As a freshman, he stepped up and led this offense for five games … and it wasn’t an easy five games,” Toukonen said. “… He did a heckuva job.” … Toukonen praised his offensive line for the job it did against Gulf Coast’s front seven: “They played their butt off tonight. They came off the ball, they moved the line of scrimmage. Hats off to them, they did a heckuva job tonight.” … Makhai Lewis (86 yards rushing) and Kaden Kitchener (game-high 13 tackles) led the Sharks’ effort on offense and defense, respectively. … Gulf Coast (3-4) entered Friday’s game having scored a combined 98 points in back-to-back wins over Reagan and Riverdale.

Follow CSI on Twitter at @239CSI or like CSI on Facebook at facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider. Email Gregg Hardy at editor@colliersportsinsider.com.