Viera’s been on a roll since bye week, but Columbia will be big test in state semifinals


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The Viera High Hawks have surprised a lot of people this season. A win tonight in Lake City against a very talented Columbia team would put Viera into the state championship game.

VIERA VOICE Carl Kotala

The Viera High Hawks have had a lot of big weeks leading up to Friday night’s Class 7A state semifinal in Lake City against Columbia.

But if you’re looking for the biggest week in Viera’s 2015 football season, it may have been the one where they played … nobody.

Yep. What a difference a bye week can make.

“Going into that week, I feel like we started to practice kind of slow and our energy was down,” senior left tackle Hunter Ulrich said “You could tell we were kind of beat up and tired from the season.

“I think that week off came at the perfect time, when we really needed it.”

Since that week off, which came following Viera’s 17-14 road win over Martin County on Oct. 16, the Hawks are 5-0 and have outscored their opponents 210-51 overall and 90-3 in the first quarter alone.

While the offense has done a good job of playing at a fast tempo and executing at a high level, the defense has benefitted from two changes to its lineup.

Cornerback Trevor Merritt has been moved to a hybrid linebacker/safety position called – what else – the Hawk in order to take advantage of his coverage and tackling skills. In turn, that opened up a spot for Will Champion to start at corner.

“You want your best guys out there on defense,” Viera coach Kevin Mays said. “That’s what it comes down to.”

The other change has been a huge one as well. Zack Blanch was the team’s standout running back last season, but a high ankle sprain in practice kept him out of the team’s first four games. When he returned for the Cocoa game, he was at linebacker but saw limited duty.

A week later, against Melbourne, he got one play at running back and tweaked his ankle again, causing him to miss two more games

When he came back after the bye week, he was Viera’s starting linebacker and has been averaging double-digit tackles ever since – including last week’s regional final win against Lakeland when he was in on 21 stops.

“I enjoy it,” Blanch said of playing linebacker. “I love playing defense. I like playing running back, obviously, but defense is a lot of fun, too.”

As for the season he’s had so far, the beginning might not have been great, but past few weeks have been special.

“(It was) really tough at the start,” Blanch said. “I wanted to get back at it like crazy. Now, it’s just awesome. Final Four? Sweet.”

The Hawks (9-4) have surprised a lot of people by getting this far.

Now they’re getting ready to play a Columbia team that looks, well, just like them.

The Tigers (12-1) have scored 50-plus points in their last two games. Their quarterback, Davin Schuck, leads the state in passing yardage (3,481) and has also thrown for 36 touchdowns with 13 interceptions for a quarterback rating of 108.3. They’ve got a stud wide receiver in Dallon Washington, who has 40 receptions for 1,203 yards (No. 2 in the state) and 13 touchdowns. They also have a top flight running back in Kamano Bell, who has rushed for 1,186 yards and 16 touchdowns this season.

“They look very similar to us,” Viera coach Kevin Mays said. “They’ve got a good quarterback, good skill players, defense … it’s almost like looking in the mirror.”

The fact that the two play similar offensive styles should help both defenses, because they see it every day in practice.

Mays believes the game will come down to who can make the slight adjustments, and who can, obviously avoid making mistakes.

Viera quarterback Hayden Kingston has been very good about doing that this season. The senior ranks second in the state in passing yardage (3,420) with 35 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a quarterback rating of 122.8.

“Hayden, he’s the best I’ve been around as far as a high school quarterback,” Mays said.

What makes Kingston so good – and should also make him attractive to college scouts – is that in addition to running Viera’s high-powered offense like a conductor leading an orchestra, he also has all the intangibles one would want in a quarterback.

“He’s a great leader, and it doesn’t just stop when we leave the field.” Ulrich said “It’s when we’re in the locker room, when we’re in the weight room – even in school.

“… He’s great in the huddle, too. In game, in the huddle, he really gets the guys to follow him. It’s like the whole offense wants to play for him. They want to make that play for him because they see him out there giving 100 percent, giving all his heart.”

Kingston has a number of weapons he can go to as well, including receiver Tre Nixon, who is leads the state with 17 receiving touchdowns and ranks No. 3 in yardage with 1,174 and seventh in receptions with 67.

Alex Cabrera, who scored all three of Viera’s touchdowns last week against Lakeland, has caught 57 passes for 1,032 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The Hawks are the only team in the state to have two 1,000-yard receivers … and they’ve still got other playmakers in receivers Quinton Richard and Donovan Jackson, Merritt and safety Jamyson Boyd – who also get some time on offense – and running back Brennen Deplancke.

Defensively, Viera will need a big game from its secondary, which also includes Evan Cruz, Malek Folston and Ian Hubbard, and from other players like Marco Foreman, Matt Martorelli, Justin Harrison and Riley Morris.

As far as this team has come, it’s hard to imagine that just three years ago, the Hawks went 1-9 and a bunch of this year’s seniors – who were freshmen back then – were contemplating going somewhere else. That is, before Mays was able to convince them to stay because better things lay ahead for the Viera football program

“You just have to look them in the face and say, ‘Listen, if you stay with me, we’ll turn it around,’” Mays said. “When these guys got moved up as freshmen, they brought a little juice to the team.

“You could see it starting to change, even at the end of that season when we beat Martin County. If you can get any group of guys to buy in, you’ll have something good.”

The Hawks have it good, all right. And if Viera can win Friday night, and incredible season will get even better.