CLEARWATER — “That’s the first chapter of the book.”
That was Clearwater coach Don Mesick’s message to his team after a shaky but hard-fought 28-18 victory over Palm Bay Heritage on Friday night.
On an opening night plagued with major penalties, costly turnovers and inconsistent offensive play, this year’s Tornadoes squad held itself together where, in the past, it might have gone off the rails.
“Last year, we played three games where we had our entire team,” Mesick said of a 2018 with an unending rash of suspensions. “The kids know the rules and we're keeping the thumb down. It's a different team with a different vibe.”
An aggressive, confident defense and strong special teams play kept Clearwater competitive until quarterback Rent Montie and the offense found itself.
Junior Marquvion Jeter fielded a second-quarter Heritage punt, paused a second for his blocking to jell, then blasted up the right side 94 yards for a touchdown. He also contributed a pair of sacks while senior Matthew Nieves added two sacks and four more tackles for loss on the night.
As a team, the Tornadoes corralled Panthers quarterback Devin Alves for seven sacks.
“We’re young at linebacker but our defensive line has played three years of varsity ball,” Mesick said. “The big difference has been at defensive coordinator. (John Scargle) is at the top of his game and makes tremendous adjustments. He knows what he’s doing and the team respects every move he makes. He’s our best acquisition of the offseason.”
Even with those pluses, 115 yards in penalties, a fumble returned 71 yards for a TD by Christian Gonzalez and two rushing TDs from Rontavius Farmer (87 yards) had Clearwater in an 18-14 hole with seven minutes left in the third quarter.
Special teams once again stepped up when junior Michael Hern stripped the punter of the ball with teammate Damond Dennis recovering deep in Heritage territory. Two Marcus Jeter carries and Clearwater had the lead to stay.
After forcing a Panther punt near midfield, Montie (209 passing yards including a 54-yard first-quarter TD bomb to Keedrik Murray) came to life, connecting twice with junior Cardrece Mobley — first on a big third-and-nine conversion, then turning a wide receiver screen into a 34-yard gain to the Heritage 9. Latrez Bradley did the honors from there to close out an impressive 80-yard drive and lock down the victory.
“We have a tremendous receiver corps,” Mesick said. “We have a lot of weapons, we just have to stop making silly mistakes.
“Heritage has a known quality defense and is the 10th-ranked team (in Class 6A) in the state. If you told me (before the game) we’d score 28 … that would be a stretch, especially since our (kickoff classic game) was rained out. But in practice and in the classroom, the kids have been doing a great job so far.”