MACCLENNY – Some danced. Some jumped. And, of course, there were a few screams of happiness.
Anyone associated with the Viera High and Baker County football programs knew what the storyline was heading into Friday night’s matchup at Baker County Memorial Stadium.
It was Viera High coach Derek Smith and his staff against his lifelong friend and former Hawks coach Kevin Mays and his talented group of Wildcats.
But it was so much more than that.
It was also a chance for the Hawks to prove they’re better than what they had shown in their first two outings. It was a chance for Viera’s secondary, which had been burned for multiple long touchdown passes in the first two weeks, to show it has improved. And, it was a chance for the offense to prove a little something.
Well, all that postgame celebrating was because Viera quarterback C.J. Simms threw for 409 yards and three touchdowns – two to Dominick Gentile – and ran for another as Viera pulled away from the Wildcats for a 31-22 victory.
“This is huge,” Simms said. “This definitely gives us a huge boost in confidence heading into the rest of our season.”
The Hawks (1-1), who had dropped their Kickoff Classic game at Olympia as well as last week’s season opener against Rockledge, shored up a number of areas in their game Friday night at Baker County.
It was a matchup of mirror images in a way as both coaching staffs run essentially the same offensive and defensive systems having learned so much from their time with each other.
Viera’s secondary was tested early on a long pass that was broken up by sophomore defensive back Terrance Latner, who was moved into the starting lineup for Friday night’s game.
The Hawks also got an early turnover when it appeared Jack Hathaway popped the ball loose and it was fallen on by A.J. Floyd.
Additionally, defensive tackle Jamari Lyons made it tough for the Wildcats to run up the middle and linebackers like Johnny Eaton, Andreas Foreman and Hathaway did a good job of making plays against an offensive system they were quite familiar with.
“We basically go against it every day in practice, so it made it a lot easier,” senior defensive end Connor Nelson said. “Our coach put together a really nice game plan and helped us perform on that.”
Nelson, who said it was his job “to make sure none of our linebackers got eaten up by the big blockers” was singled out by Smith after the game for his willingness to keep Baker County’s massive offensive linemen off his teammates to give them room to operate.
“He played the dirty game tonight,” Smith said. “When I say dirty, I mean the road grader game. (Baker County) has got a hell of an offensive line. Connor’s job tonight was to spill.
“Spilling’s not fancy. It’s basically sacrificing your body so linebackers can make the play. Connor sacrificed his body all night. I played that position he played and did that in college. It’s a thankless position that really hurts your body.
“For him to do that all night against a caliber offensive line like that was phenomenal. I’m proud of Connor and I’m glad to have him in this program.”
While the Hawks had their best defensive showing of the season, the Wildcats certainly had their moments, especially with the playmaking-tandem of Cam Smith and Jaymodd Ruise, who ripped off several big plays.
After Viera passed up a chance to kick a field goal and eventually turned the ball over on downs deep in Baker County territory, Smith took a handoff, made one tackler miss and got to the outside where he outran the defense for a 73-yard touchdown. The extra point was no good, and Viera trailed 6-0 after the first quarter.
The teams would then trade field goals as Viera’s Jared Perdomo hit from 37 yards out and Baker County’s Blake Mays added a 27-yard kick with 42.7 seconds left in the half.
Viera may not have had much time to work with, but boy did the Hawks make it count.
After a 29-yard run by Judah Knight put the ball at the Viera 49-yard line with 24 seconds remaining in the half, the Hawks lined up in a four wide receiver set.
This was where the staff’s familiarity with each other paid off for Viera.
Just as Simms was about to snap the ball, the Viera coaching staff recognized the blitz Baker County was about to come with and pointed at Cohen Graham-Johnson, who was lined up at an inside slot position.
“They were trying to man Cohen up with nobody in the middle,” Simms said. “We knew where we were going with it. We trust Cohen more than anyone else around.
“They made it pretty easy for me. I did take a shot, but it was worth it.”
That’s because Graham-Johnson caught the ball, slipped a tackle and went 42 yards down to the Baker County 9-yard line.
Seconds later, Simms would find Judah on a quick swing pass and the sophomore running back dove into the end zone with just 1.1 seconds left on the clock. Perdomo’s PAT gave Viera a 10-9 halftime lead, not to mention a much-needed boost.
“Scoring right there before the half, I can’t tell you how much momentum that gave us,” Simms said. “That gave us kick we needed to come out here and finish this game.”
While the Hawks may have showed that they’ve fixed some of their problems in this game, they haven’t fixed all of them.
Viera’s special teams continues to be a major concern as once again, Viera stopped sending anyone back to return punts and the coverage units struggled.
After the Hawks were stopped on their first possession of the second half, a Viera gunner appeared to lose sight of the ball on the punt and Ruise blew past the Hawks for a 75-yard touchdown that put the Wildcats back in front 16-10 early in the third quarter.
In the past, mistakes like that would have had the Hawks putting their heads down. But that wasn’t the case Friday night.
“We were able to keep the energy high and bounce back every time,” Simms said. “That was really the main difference between this week and the last couple of weeks. We didn’t get down on ourselves.
“We were able to stay positive and go out there and put more points on the board.”
After a facemask penalty on Baker County kept a Viera drive alive, Simms found wide receiver Quincy Gillins cutting across the middle for a 57-yard play down to the Baker County 3.
Simms would eventually hit Gentile for a 4-yard score and the Hawks were back in front 17-16.
The Viera quarterback would come up big again moments later when Baker County blitzed and Simms was able to avoid a charging defender and broke up the middle for what turned into a 33-yard touchdown run for the Hawks and the Hawks’ lead was eight.
Baker County would come back with a score of its own, but a fake PAT was stopped by the Hawks and Simms came back to hit Gentile with another touchdown pass, this one from 26 yards out, to help seal the game.
Simms finished the night completing 33 of 45 passes for 409 yards and the three scores.
Graham-Johnson had 11 receptions for 119 yards. Donovan Giles caught 10 passes for 129 yards. Gillins finished with five receptions for 102 yards.
“When everybody asked me at the beginning what the key was to this game – (it was) C.J.,” Smith said. “C.J. is the key to this season. When C.J. has that savviness to him and he’s throwing the short routes and he’s hot, it’s a great game.
“He’s going to be one hell of a dude to stop because he’s hitting the right routes.”
And so, the first of the two scheduled games between the Hawks and Wildcats – Baker County is set to come to Viera next season – goes to Smith and his staff.
In many ways, Friday night was a reunion of the group that helped take Viera to the state championship game in 2015. Even former Palm Bay High star Joe Cohen – a teammate of Viera offensive coordinator Mike Degory and a one-time member of the Hawks’ staff – was on hand for this one.
Mays won 50 games over seven seasons at Viera before leaving the program and turning things over to Smith following the 2017 season.
The two coaches have been friends since the sixth grade and have served on three different staffs together – Palm Bay (both were assistants), Bayside (Smith was head coach) and Viera (Mays was head coach).
“Baker County is a well-coached team,” Smith said. “Coach Mays does a phenomenal job. And to be honest, I think both crowds saw why we made such a great staff when we were all together.
“It didn’t matter who was head coach, who wasn’t head coach. When Degory, myself, Mays (and DeMarkulus Menyfield, Shane Staples and Dave Cooley) were together, we just made magic happen. You could see it (tonight).”
Now that the matchup is over, Smith and the Hawks can continue their quest for a seventh straight district championship and a deep run in the 7A state playoffs. Mays, meanwhile, will try to get Baker County back to the Class 5A regional final and beyond.
In the meantime, Smith gets to have a little fun with his friend.
“I still love him,” Smith said of Mays. “Win or lose, he’s always going to be in my heart as a brother of mine.
“But until next year, I’ve got bragging rights.”