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Best of the Suwannee Valley Pick 'Em Tournament

Confident ’88 Suwannee faces ’91 HCHS in opener

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1988 SHS Palmer.jpg

Quarterback John Palmer and the 1988 Suwannee Bulldogs had an attitude that they couldn’t lose.

LIVE OAK — After winning the program’s first state championship the year before, the 1988 Suwannee Bulldogs brought back more than a trophy.

The Bulldogs also returned with a sense of invincibility.

“The good thing about that bunch was they didn’t think they could lose,” then-SHS coach Mike Pittman said. “They didn’t think anybody could beat them. They had that confidence that ‘We just can’t lose.’”

That unbeatable feeling led to the Bulldogs’ second of four straight Class 3A state titles and the top seed in the “Best of the Suwannee Valley” pick ‘em tournament. They open against the 1991 Hamilton County Trojans.

Returning nearly its entire lineup from the 1987 title team, that unstoppable feeling was fueled by an explosive offense that racked up 454 points behind quarterback John Palmer, record-setting wide receiver Matt Frier and running backs Marcus Nelson and Terry Williams. It helped that the Bulldogs featured an experienced offensive line, too, including Gantt Crouch, Conel Crockton and Matt McMillan, all All-State performers.

That firepower helped the Bulldogs feel like they were always in a game.

For instance, Santa Fe raced out to a 14-0 lead in the state semifinal game in Alachua.

Suwannee, though, wasn’t fazed.

“With that team right there, they could get down three touchdowns and there was no doubt that they were going to come back,” Pittman said. “We had a good defense, but we had a great offensive team that year.

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“They never panicked. They just never panicked. They just kept going because they knew that they could win.”

End result: a 35-21 win that led to a 44-15 beatdown of Hardee the following week at Langford Stadium for the second straight title.

Looking to try and slow down that high-flying attack are the 1991 Trojans, who went 10-1 against an independent schedule. While not eligible to compete in the playoffs, HCHS still faced a very difficult slate. Their lone loss came in overtime to the Jefferson County Tigers, who went on to win the Class 2A title.

1991 HamCo.jpg

Hamilton County coach Jim Anderson led the Trojans to a 10-1 mark and a bowl win in 1991.

Ira Johnson, Andre Walls and Eric Clarity gave HCHS a three-headed attack at running back while Jermaine Morgan ran the offense at quarterback. Those skill players, along with receivers Michael Strickland and Willie Paul Daniels, guided an offense that averaged 33.5 points per game.

Hamilton County defeated the likes of North Florida Christian and FAMU in dominating fashion and topped Havana Westside 44-41. The Trojans outscored their opponents 369-195 and won a bowl game against Marianna.

“I was the waterboy for the 1991 team and I really looked up to those guys and wanted to be just like them,” said Ryan Mitchell, who has coached at HCHS and also broadcasted games. “Those guys were fast and really tough on defense. One of the bigger teams. And a really athletic group – a lot of the football players also played basketball and went on to win a state championship in basketball that same season.”

Correspondent Mike Jones contributed to this story.

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