The new kings of Collier: Bears talk about undefeated regular season

Since disposing of Naples in the season opener, Kamonte Grimes and the Palmetto Ridge High football team have not looked back. GLENN CHRISTOPHER/SPECIAL TO CSI

BY GREGG HARDY
CSI EDITOR

After running roughshod over the other six Collier County Athletic Conference football teams, Palmetto Ridge High School defensive coordinator P.J. Gibbs sent CollierSportsInsider a direct message that included a graphic.

The graphic read: “Palmetto Ridge Bears. CCAC champions! 1st time in school history. Undefeated. #History.” Then, Gibbs added the exclaimer: “1st time a school not named Naples had won it!!!”

Ever since serving notice to Southwest Florida with their season-opening 38-0 demolition of perennial Collier County superpower Naples, coach Chris Toukonen’s Bears have refused to wilt in the spotlight.

Dominant over their first six games, the Bears weren’t truly tested until last week’s regular-season finale when they stormed back from a 21-0 hole to beat Bishop Verot in a thriller, 28-24.

PHOTO GALLERY: View images of the Bears’ victories over Naples and Barron Collier

It doesn’t figure to get any easier for the Bears from here on out. Palmetto Ridge wasn’t granted any favors with the Florida High School Athletic Association’s blind playoff draw. (Due to restrictions this season brought on by COVID-19, all schools were granted postseason eligibility.) A home play-in game Friday against the Port Charlotte Pirates (5-3) awaits. Last year, after a nightmarish 0-5 start, Palmetto Ridge was denied a fifth straight win — and potential playoff berth — to close out the season by the very same Pirates.

Palmetto Ridge is 11-1 since quarterback Evan Rodriguez returned from injury last season. GLENN CHRISTOPHER/SPECIAL TO CSI

This season, Toukonen took a huge gamble with his team’s chemistry by employing a two-quarterback system. Evan Rodriguez, who established himself as the man under center late last season after returning from injury, suddenly found himself sharing the spotlight with Wisconsin transfer Gabe Seifert.

The gamble paid off as Rodriguez and Seifert, both seniors, have taken turns running an offense that’s proven itself more than capable of putting up some huge numbers. It helps that Palmetto Ridge is loaded at the skill positions. Senior wideouts Kamonte Grimes (a University of Nebraska commit) and Malique Dieudonne, junior tight end Caleb Cousins and sophomore running back Jaden “Smiley” Booker, to name a few, have each enjoyed standout seasons.

Defensively, Palmetto Ridge has been stout all season, save for Bishop Verot’s 21-point outburst in the first quarter. The Bears had not allowed a point until the second quarter of its Week 5 game at Barron Collier, and they hadn’t trailed in a game until early in their Week 6 game at Gulf Coast.

Some of Palmetto Ridge’s coaches and players recently took time to answer an array of questions about the Bears’ season thus far:

(To Rodriguez:) What was the conversation like when coach told you that Seifert was coming to Palmetto Ridge? Was it something you knew was coming?

Rodriguez: I didn’t know it was coming. (Coach) came to me the same day that Gabe had arrived to Palmetto, and he was just like, ‘There’s a guy from Wisconsin. He’s pretty good.’ And the rest is history. That’s it.

(To Rodriguez:) Did coach give you an idea how things would play out (with you and Seifert)?

Rodriguez: Not really, but after the first game, we kind of knew what was going to happen. And it’s been running pretty smooth.

(To Toukonen:) You had a good thing going with Evan at the end of last year. Some could say it was a risky move on your part to tweak the chemistry. Was there any concern on your part in doing that?

Toukonen: Yeah, no doubt (it was risky). Using two quarterbacks is never easy. That’s usually the one position that you don’t do that. … I think that’s part of the reason we struggled (offensively) a little bit early in the year. Quarterbacks get into a rhythm … (not) playing a series, then sitting out a series, then playing a series. But my hat’s off to both of them. They both bought in. They both bring a different dimension to our team, which I think for (opposing) defenses it’s harder to prepare for.

(To Toukonen:) Is it a scripted thing — you know who’s going to play what series — or is it strictly alternating or a hot-hand approach?

Toukonen: It’s not hot hand … not as of now. It may go that way as the season goes on, but as of right now we kind of script it out throughout the week, and we want to make sure we give them equal playing time.

(To Rodriguez:) When you’re in the game, do you feel a sense of urgency?

Rodriguez: I definitely see myself as a leader. When we’re out there, I feel like you can feel my presence. I’m leading the guys. They all know what they’re doing when I’m out there; they’re listening. I’m very loud on the field as well, so they know what they’re doing. I’m really a big leader out there, and you could tell that there’s a sense of urgency out there.

(To Seifert:) Was it the lockdown (in Wisconsin) that brought you down here?

Seifert: We made a move fast because we weren’t sure if Wisconsin was going to end up playing or not, and I needed my senior year just for like film for the colleges that I’m talking to, so we didn’t want to take the risk of potentially not playing. It was a family decision in the long run.

Gabe Seifert (14) has no doubts he made the right decision by joining Palmetto Ridge for his senior year. GLENN CHRISTOPHER/SPECIAL TO CSI

(To Seifert:) Was there anything that drew you to Palmetto Ridge, in particular, and did you do your homework on them before you made your decision?

Seifert: I definitely did my homework. I actually linked up with one of my old friends that lived in Wisconsin who moved to Naples High (defensive back Andre Powell Jr.), and his dad (Andre Powell Sr.) was our FBU coach and we played together for FBU. I was his quarterback for seventh-grade FBU. I was talking to him, and he kind of gave me the insight on everything, and he gave me the smart moves on what to do. I did my research and at the end of the day I chose Palmetto Ridge. Definitely happy with my decision.

(To Grimes and Toukonen:) What are practices like when the offense matches up with the defense? Is it fierce?

Grimes: Yeah, ones vs. ones in practice is always intense whenever we do them. At the beginning (of the season) or when we do them later on in the season, one-on-ones are always intense. … Everybody’s always fired up and ready to compete.

Toukonen: Yeah, we get after it. We don’t really do too much ones vs. ones this time of the year, but as soon as we got pads on back in August, yeah we went ones vs. ones every day. We knew we had to do that, especially getting ready for Naples and not having a (preseason) game before that. We knew we had to be playing good on both sides of the ball.

(To Toukonen:) Do you believe in carryover from one season to another, and if so, was there a carryover with as well as you guys played at the end of last season?

Toukonen: Yeah. In high school, being healthy is huge, especially at the quarterback position. So last year, the first five games of the year we were starting a freshman quarterback (Hosea Booker) against some of the best teams in the state. Obviously, we struggled early. We got Evan back, and it kind of (completed) our offense.

(To Toukonen:) What did the win over Naples do for the psyche of your team? Are we still seeing the ripple effects of that game, (especially) confidence-wise?

Toukonen: Going into that game, we felt very confident. Obviously, Naples is a great program. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll win multiple playoff games this year, and coach (Rick) Martin has them going.

When Jhordan Inniss (2) and the Bears took down Naples on Sept. 16, it was a sign of things to come for Palmetto Ridge opponents. GLENN CHRISTOPHER/SPECIAL TO CSI

(To Gibbs:) What makes this defense go? And what did the defense learn from the first quarter against Bishop Verot?

Gibbs: Our defense is a collaborative effort; it’s a culture that has taken three years to build. We have a great head coach and defensive coaching staff. We play fast and physical and our players and coaches take coaching and they prepare at a high level. That is the Blackshirt D mentality: “Do your job, ignore the noise, fast and physical.” I have to highlight our defensive backs coach, Nick Citro, a former player of mine from New Jersey. Nick does a tremendous job with drills and preparation. (Against Verot) I think we learned how we are going to react when adversity hits. We had multiple seniors step up and keep our defense going. Sam Pierre, Jhordan Inniss, Jean Perez, Malique Dieudonne all did a phenomenal job keeping the defense on track. As a coach, when your seniors are leading it is a beautiful thing to see.

(To Rodriguez and Grimes:) If we had a Southwest Florida fantasy football league, how many first-round picks would Palmetto Ridge have?

Rodriguez: Geez, more than I can put on my fingers probably. Offensively, we’ve got some big players for sure.

Grimes: I think we should have all of them, to be honest. … From defense to special teams to offense, it’s hard to pick.

Editor’s note: Please support CSI’s advertisers; we cannot exist without their support. Follow CSI on social media: @239CSI (Twitter); facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider (Facebook; @colliersportsinsider (Instagram). Email Gregg Hardy at editor@colliersportsinsider.com.