LIVE OAK — The 1981 Lafayette Hornets already have one title to their resume: Class A state champions.
Standing in their way of adding a second — the “Best of the Suwannee Valley” — are the 1999 Suwannee Bulldogs, who fell one win shy of their own state title.
The two have emerged from a field of the area’s best — including all four SHS state championship squads — to vie for the championship in the tournament, picked by the readers of the Suwannee Democrat, The Jasper News and Mayo Free Press.
True to form, the 1981 Hornets haven’t had much difficulty in reaching the title game, following up a lopsided win in the opening round with a pair of double-digit voting percentage wins against other Lafayette High teams: 1997 and 2005.
In their title campaign, the 1981 Hornets had just one game decided by one score: a 13-10 win against Baker in the state semifinal. That preceded a 25-8 win at Frostproof for the title. The closest game other than those? A 32-8 win against St. Johns Lutheran, one of just four teams to score against Lafayette in the regular season.
Bruce Branche, the team’s leading tackler, said the blowouts could have been much worse.
“There were a lot of games that a lot of us only didn’t play half the game,” Branche said. “We could have beat some of those teams, 70, 80 to nothing.
“There were a couple of those games where at halftime, I know, I took my pads off.”
Those recurring routs came behind a “total team effort,” according to Branche. Sure, Lafayette had stars like Joseph Edwards, who scored 27 touchdowns, and Kerwin Bell, who threw for 27 touchdowns as well.
But it was a team that had strong contributions from top to bottom. It also had stellar coaching from head coach Dale Richter, a defensive guru, and offensive coordinator Taylor McGrew.
“We just had a lot of outstanding ballplayers,” Branche said. “We had an all-around team.”
Also star-studded but getting contributions from its entire roster was the 1999 Bulldogs. Led by future college defensive backs Kyler Hall, Jarvis Herring, Matt Jackson and Kelly Jennings, Suwannee had talent.
“We had talent on both sides of the ball, special teams and everywhere,” Jennings admitted.
But there was more than talent that allowed those Bulldogs to reach the state championship game for the first time in nine years, while also overcoming a late-season stretch in which Suwannee lost four of five games.
“The friendship bond that we had,” Jennings said was key to that team becoming a great team. “We did so much stuff together. That brotherhood, that bond that you form from that, I think that is what made us so good and set us apart from other teams that may have come through.”
That close bond helped Suwannee pull off a pair of close playoff wins, including a double-overtime thriller against Santa Fe, as did a blocked extra point by Tim Riley. Similarly, after a pair of convincing wins in this tournament, the 1999 Bulldogs edged the 1995 SHS team by one vote to reach the championship.
Who would win?
And now the Bulldogs have the chance for the title that eluded them in 1999.
Jennings said this title is definitely one that his team deserves.
“We had something special,” he said. “I know we came up short in the state championship game, but we had something special.
“So I would have give the leaning to us.”
Not so fast, said Branche.
“I think if we would have really showcased what we could have done that year and coach would have allowed it, I don’t think there would be a doubt,” he added. “It would have been staggering.
“Our team, for this area, we had one of the best all-around teams I think that’s ever been around this area…It was unreal to be a part of that team.”