Northeast Florida Sports Jacksonville

Mission accomplished: Gamble Rogers wins first county title

JULINGTON CREEK – There was no pregame speech needed really, the message was clear lets finish what we started.

After back-to-back semifinal losses to Switzerland Point the last two years, there was nothing that head coach Matt Potak or defensive coordinator Ron Evans needed to say Wednesday night at Plantation Park.

Clinging to a 21-20 lead with 2:30 left in the game, the Stingrays defense needed one more stop and delivered as a pack of Stingrays gang tackled Dominic Fields short of the goal line stopping the two point conversion attempt helping the Stingrays win their first ever county title.

Kind of ironic after all this season was all about a gang of brothers who stepped up and played together as a family to bring home the programs first title.

Contrary to belief, the foundation for a county championship didn’t start last spring it started four years ago with the announcement of Potak as the head coach of Gamble Rogers.

Year one was tough as the Stingrays went 3-6 missing the playoffs in his inaugural season, but the last two years the Stingrays were oh so close losing in the semi-finals back-to-back years to Swiss Point after 8-3 and 9-2 seasons in 2015 and 2016.

After losing several eight graders to high school last year, nothing was really expected from Gamble Rogers this season. Among the losses was starting wide receiver Willie Rollins, who moved on to Matanzas High. Without playing a down, Rollins consequently played a huge part in the Stingrays title run this season.

A year ago, Rollins saw a young gifted athlete named King Benford in the local community pool and convinced him to try out for football.

Benford, who grew up playing flag football, had never played tackle football before and tried out for the Gamble Rogers football team as a linebacker of all places.  Benford was good friends with another talented kid Aaron Wynn, who like him, had never played football before having grown up playing AAU baseball. It was Benford who convinced Wynn to come out for football as well.

Aaron Wynn looks for room late in the fourth quarter in the Stingrays win over Swiss Point. COURTESY PHOTOS from Eagles Eye Photographer Aaron Jones.

So if not for Rollins, there is no King Benford or Araron Wynn and without those two this season, there isn’t a first ever county championship for Gamble Rogers.

Ironically, despite being a freshman in high school, Rollins still texted Potak nearly every game and follows the team each week through social media via myself.

Yet this team was more than just Benford and Wynn, an extremely quiet defensive lineman Moses King goes about his business and consistently makes big plays.

As does linebacker Seth Stamps, or first year player Dylan Flynn, who admitted he doesn’t really know much about football, but was making tackles in the most important game of the season. Three six graders Trey Pate, Kani Harris and Frankie Morabito all chipped in as well.

Wide receivers Terrell Newsome and Liam Terrell who stepped up and played out of position sometimes on jet sweeps or tight end coming up with big time catches.

A kicker Bryce Addison who seldomly got the chance to kick field goals, yet made 42 of 47 point after attempts on the season and nailed the game winning field goal to send the Stingrays to the title game last week. Addison made all three point after attempts in the championship game to finish the season 45 of 50, with an incredible 90% accuracy rate.

But on this night it was all about Wynn and Benford on offense as the dynamic duo picked up the team when they needed a boost through out the season and in the biggest game of the season.

Wynn took a hand off from Benford on the third Stingray play from scrimmage and raced 62 yards untouched for a quick 7-0 lead minutes into the game.

Swiss Point (9-3) quickly answered on its ensuing drive as Trenton Delaere found Justin Nadeau wide open for a 29 yard touchdown pass cutting the lead to 7-6. The Raiders went for two and the pass fell incomplete keeping the score 7-6 late in the first quarter.

Delaere found Nadeau again all alone for a 27 yard touchdown catch on the next drive giving the Raiders their first lead of the game at 14-7 as the two point play was good to seize the momentum.

The momentum was gone about 12 seconds later as Wynn fielded the kickoff at the 25 and cut down the Gamble Rogers sideline racing 75 yards untouched tying the game at 14-14 midway through the second quarter.

“I was really surprised they kicked to me, they didn’t in the first meeting this year but coach was yelling at me to take it and go get it” Wynn said.

Both teams had one final drive before the half but the defenses stepped up to end the half tied at 14-14.

After getting a quick three and out, the Raiders put together a 11 play drive to chew up a lot of the third quarter and appeared on their way of potentially retaking the lead back. However, defensive back Tomas Brown got a hand on the ball on third down forcing an incomplete pass and the Raiders to punt it back to the Stingrays.

King Benford came up huge for the Gamble Rogers Stingrays with a critical 25 yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

Faced with third and 7, Benford surprised Swiss with a short toss to Terrell that well short of the first down; however a late hit on Benford gave the Stingrays an automatic first down and the momentum back.

Three  plays later, Benford faked a hand off to Wynn and behind a great block from Stamps ran up the middle weaving around defenders for a 25 yard touchdown run giving the Stingrays a 21-14 lead with 5 minutes left.

“We knew Swiss was an aggressive defense and it was a zone read play and he faked it to Wynn and kept it and for King to make that read as a first year quarterback that was totally amazing,” Potak stated.

Swiss Point coach Don Luczak moved his best player Dominic Fields back to tailback with the season on the line and it worked as Fields carried the ball five straight plays capping the drive with a 29 yard touchdown run with 2:35 left in the game.

The defending county champions who had played in three consecutive title games were in great position to win their second straight title and third overall.

Luczak called a timeout following the score to discuss the play and after trying to draw the Stingrays off sides with a hard count which didn’t work, called another time out seconds later. Two timeouts called back-to-back seemed to not only kill the momentum but also their hopes of a comeback later.

After coming back from the second timeout, everybody knew who was getting the ball Fields, it just became a matter of who wanted it more. Would Fields carry the Raiders to another come from behind win and back-to-back title or would the Stingrays dig down deep and make the huge stop ?

Fields took the hand off and tried to get to the corner quickly before a host of Stingrays gang tackled him before getting across the goal line to deny the Raiders the two point conversion keeping it 21-20 with two and half minutes left.

Despite the stop, the game was far from over for both teams. Gamble Rogers still needed a few first downs, while Swiss Point needed a quick three-and-out to save time for a potential game winning drive.

Wynn was hit for a loss and a short gain on the first two plays of the drive as the Raiders called their final timeout of the game with over a minute remaining.

Third and ten would decided it as Wynn took the hand off and broke free to pick up an apparent first down on his own; however two flags were called on the play leaving the 1,000 plus in attendance anxiously awaiting the outcome of the calls.

Officials ruled a facemask and horse collar call on the play, which Stingray coaches declined the facemask call and accepted the horse collar call giving them the yardage on the play plus an additional 15 plus yards and automatic first down inside the 23-yard line.

Runs by Benford and Wynn sealed it as the Stingrays were able to run the clock out setting off a wild celebration on the Stingray sideline.

Defensive coordinator Ron Evans and coach Matt Potak proudly accept the county trophy.

Wynn and Benford reacted to the clinching play nearly identical.

“On the play I was just trying to get the first down and when we saw the flags I began to celebrate and screaming knowing I just led us to the title,” Wynn added.

“I was thinking we got it, give all glory to God and god came through for us,” Benford said. “I feel really excited, we’re finally bringing some respect back to the South part of the county.”

Potak told his team after the game, “I’m so proud of you guys, you guys played with the heart of a champion and we had our backs against the wall and didn’t fold.”

Evans chimed in as well saying, “It’s about time we give the South end some respect and bring home a title and a winning tradition. I know one thing Swiss Point can’t say they won the championship this year. “We’re the number one team in St. Johns county and no one can ever take that away from you.”

Evans last coupe statements drew a loud cheer as the Stingrays finally avenged two straight playoff losses to Swiss Point and finally won their first ever county title.

Football chairman Drew McClung presented the team with the county trophy not before saying to the team, “You guys have come a long way for this and after losing the last two years in the semi-finals you deserve this.”

Gamble Rogers (11-1) had barely been celebrating the programs first ever title when someone mentioned coming back and winning the second one but Potak preferred to talk about winning the first one.

“We’ve been so battled, we all worked our butts off every day but being battle tested against University Christian and Liberty Pines (twice) had us well prepared for this,” Potak added.

Yet it was a close call with Pacetti Bay not a loss to Fruit Cove in a No. 1 vs No. 2 showdown that seemed to wake the team up and get them back on track.

“We weren’t upset with the Fruit Cove loss really other than them making us play 3 games in 8 days, but that close win over Pacetti Bay was a huge wake up call for us. We changed some things offensively and focused more on the little things.”

Potak stated that is was the spring where he knew his team really had a chance.

“We knew in the spring we had the potential but having to replace so many players from the year before we had to focus on the fundamentals again” Potak added. Getting Wynn and then King back for a second year along with several young guys we knew we had the pieces to win it.”

Potak added, “We did this for our community and our fans, we had over 25 alumni here tonight including several from Menendez and St. Augustine and everybody on the team played a part in this and our dedicated coaching staff put a lot of hours in this watching film over and over and we all came together and bought in and went all in together to win the title.”

Yet Potak went back to that day four years ago and building the program from being everyone’s homecoming game to a sudden county power.

“We put four years into this and this was for all those other teams who played a key part in this run. We knew we always had the potential to do this we just always came up short,” Potak said. ”

Gamble Rogers etched their name into stone as the 2017 St. Johns County champions with a 21-20 win over Swiss Point.

St. Johns County Middle School champions

2017: Gamble Rogers Stingrays

2016: Switzerland Point Raiders

2015: Sebastian Eagles

2014: Murray Bulldogs

2013: Landrum Lions

2012: Murray Bulldogs

2011: Murray Bulldogs

2010: Switzerland Point Raiders