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First Baptist Academy and South Fort Myers remain alive in the postseason thanks to another electric performance by each football team's leading rusher in Friday's regional quarterfinals.
Jonah Bueltel ran for 212 yards and accounted for five touchdowns in First Baptist's 42-21 win over Largo-Indian Rocks Christian in the Class 2A playoffs. Robert Brown went for 155 yards and two key scores in South's 27-0 win over Barron Collier in 6A.
Bueltel and Brown shredding defenses shouldn't surprise anyone after both had breakout regular seasons. Yet just three months ago, before the start of their senior years, most observers outside their own teams didn't expect much from the soon-to-be stars.
After mediocre junior seasons, both players were overshadowed by their more recognizable teammates. Now that Bueltel and Brown have hit the 1,000-yard milestone and are among the leading rushers in Southwest Florida, everyone knows their names.
"Jonah is a really, really, really special athlete," First Baptist coach Billy Sparacio said. "He's not a surprise, but every week he does something that blows us away. It's neat to watch."
Bueltel might be the biggest surprise in the area this season. After playing receiver and backup quarterback last year, he's blossomed into one of the top offensive threats in Southwest Florida. Playing mostly quarterback this year, Bueltel has 1,923 yards of offense and 34 total touchdowns.
Before the season began, Sparacio planned to use Bueltel at quarterback more this year. The Lions had Corey Todd, who ran for 1,281 yards in just nine games as a junior, returning for his fourth year as the starter. But Sparacio knew Bueltel was too good of an athlete to leave solely at receiver.
When Todd was benched in Weeks 3 and 4 for undisclosed reasons, Bueltel earned his spot under center the rest of the year. Bueltel ran for 403 yards and five touchdowns combined in wins over North Port-Imagine and district opponent Southwest Florida Christian. He also threw for two more touchdowns.
The Lions (11-0) have continued to rotate Todd and Bueltel under center, though Bueltel saw most of the action Friday. Behind the dual quarterbacks, First Baptist leads the area in rushing at 343 yards a game.
"The credit goes to our team," the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Bueltel said. "We've got great blockers up front. We can spread the ball out nicely. Our offense has been clicking."
Bueltel has rushed for 1,396 yards and 23 touchdowns. He's passed for 307 yards and seven touchdowns while adding 220 yards and four scores receiving. Not bad for a kid who didn't start playing football until four years ago when he was in eighth grade.
Similar to Bueltel in size, speed and elusiveness, Brown was South's leading returning rusher this season. The 5-7, 155-pound back had 532 yards last season, but all eyes in the offseason were on Jayron Kearse, the Clemson recruit who transferred in from Cypress Lake.
Following a modest start to the year, Brown has hit his stride lately for the Wolfpack (10-1). He's averaged 116.6 yards a game the past eight weeks, including six 100-yard games.
"When Jayron got here, it took a lot of pressure off me, a lot of eyes off me, too," Brown said. "I love having him here because it's easier on me."
After Friday's performance, including touchdown runs of 65 and 55 yards, Brown has 1,110 yards and 12 touchdowns on the year.
"He's come through in every game," South coach Grant Redhead said. "He's become a leader on this team. ... He got serious in the offseason about lifting and working out and doing everything he needed to do to improve."
Brown worked long days with Wolfpack running backs coach Jason Brown (no relation) in the summer. Even with his dedication, Brown said he's surprised himself by setting South's single-season rushing record.
Looking forward to this week, both breakout running backs have tough challenges in the regional semifinals. First Baptist hosts 2A-District 5 champ Tampa-Carrollwood Day (10-1), while South takes on undefeated 6A-12 champion Naples (10-0).
Both rushers know that, for their teams to have success, they have to continue to perform on the field — even if they can't surprise opponents anymore.
"It's going to come down to me running hard and picking up blocks when I'm not getting the ball," Brown said. "I've got to be a team player all the way around. I just want to keep winning."