Post Top 25 countdown: No. 8 Palm Beach Gardens ready to roll on despite heavy losses
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
by Jeff Greer
Running back Roshard Burney is gone. So's Alex Clark. And Chris Davis. Oh, and burly offensive tackle Avery Young.
Those are four huge figures who carved their names in Palm Beach Gardens football lore as they led the Gators on an unexpected run to the Class 8A regional finals. Davis, the coach, left for a Georgia high school. Young (Auburn) and Burney (West Virginia) matriculated to BCS programs. Clark, Burney's fellow tailback, graduated and moved on, too.
But there's no sense of panic at Gardens this fall. Not even close. Not with long-time coordinator Rob Freeman taking over for Davis and several major players from last year's nine-win team still populating the Gators' roster.
"There's still that level of continuity," Freeman said. "There's no denying those guys were all really good, and Chris's impact on the program is obvious, but we still have some really good players and people here."
Freeman's transition to head coach was easy in that regard -- the players and remaining staff know him well. And his team's chances of a return to the postseason are as good as any in Palm Beach County, with quarterback JP Caruso, receiver Frank Brown and tight end Caleb Perez back to expand the Gators' passing attack and offensive linemen James Cruise and Nick Hoffman back to anchor the offensive line. There are also speedsters like Terrence St. Hillaire and Cardinal Newman transfer Sha'Corey Foster on Freeman's roster.
But don't underestimate the importance of several defensive players returning. Defensive end Dakwon DePolo, linebackers Romahd Holman and Korey Wells and cornerback AJ Shipman pack a defense that rapidly improved as the 2011 campaign progressed.
In all, there are 15 returning starters.
Having players with that experience on both sides of the ball will be huge come October and November. Gardens hosts District 9-8A foe Seminole Ridge on Oct. 19 in what has become one of the most intense rivalries in the area. That game will also likely decide the district title again, just like it did last fall when the Gators lost thanks in large part to a missed extra point.
In November, they exacted revenge, with Caruso's fourth-down, 33-yard scoring heave down the left sideline to Brown all but sealing Gardens' thrilling 14-6 regional semifinal win over Ridge.
Those memories -- both mental and muscle -- don't just disappear with a departing senior class or head coach.
"It was great for them to go through that," Freeman said. "You learn from those experiences."