MAYO— A year ago, Lafayette High needed a last-minute rally to knock off Union County in the playoffs at Dale Walker Field.
When the Tigers return to Mayo today for a Region 3-1A semifinal at 7:30 p.m., LHS coach Mark Beach would take another heart-stopping 34-30 finish if it means the Hornets advance.
“With what we’ve been through, I don’t care,” Beach said with a laugh. “We just want to win. We’ve been through it all this year. From Chiefland to Branford to Dixie to even Maclay, these guys are battle tested.
“We know we’ve been in some great football games. We just want to win, man.”
Indeed the 9-1 Hornets have been tested. While battling an array of injuries that have forced lineup changes and a host of young players to step up in big roles, Lafayette outlasted Chiefland 54-53, rallied past Branford 29-26, stopped Dixie County 27-16 and overcame Trenton 41-35. The Hornets also fell 69-43 in a shootout at Maclay.
Now comes the 6-5 Tigers.
“They’re physical, a lot of numbers, athletes,” Beach said. “I was kind of wondering how they’re 6-5. They look pretty good.”
Union has won three straight and four of its past six as the Tigers’ spread offense has started to find its rhythm on the ground. As a team, Union averages 166.7 yards rushing per game.
But down the stretch the Tigers were even better on the ground. Following a 35-16 loss to Tavares on Sept. 20 in which they gained just 24 yards on 21 carries, the Tigers have churned out at least 200 yards in each of their final four regular season outings, including 315 against Hawthorne and a season-high 329 in the finale against Keystone Heights.
The Tigers are paced by Hosea Robinson, who has rushed for 1,141 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“They still want to run it, just run it out of a different look,” Beach added. “But they still have a vertical threat, which worries me for us because we’ve struggled with that all year.”
Lafayette will counter with a balanced offense that has also found its footing in the ground game. The Hornets, who average 219.3 yards rushing have topped the 200-yard mark in each of the past five games including 303 against Branford.
Jaxson Beach, the Hornets’ two-time All-State quarterback, has been the engine powering that attack as he is completing 64 percent of his passes for 2,247 yards with 24 touchdowns to just three interceptions. The dual-threat quarterback has also rushed for 1,182 yards and 22 scores. Sophomores Montae Gillyard and Mario Thomas have combined for 884 yards and nine touchdowns.
Another sophomore, Nic’kel Freeman has emerged as Beach’s top target, hauling in 56 passes for 955 yards and six touchdowns. With senior Adam Perry sidelined with an injury, Garrison Beach — yet another sophomore — has stepped up as a dependable target for his brother as well, catching 21 passes for 323 yards and five touchdowns.
“Our motto is next guy keep ringing the bell and stepping up and keep playing,” Mark Beach said.