Lake Wales has had Immokalee's number during the regular season the past two years, but when the Highlanders (8-4) travel to the Indians' turf tonight for a 5A regional final, they will be facing a different team.
"We are a much different team than Week 4," Indians head coach Jerrod Ackley said. "We are playing much faster and more physical on defense. On offense, our offensive line play has improved dramatically. Our special teams have eliminated the mistakes that plagued us much of the season. We have been practicing much better the past five weeks, and the results have shown on the field."
And barring a freak thunderstorm, this will be a totally different game than the quagmire of that previous meeting.
"We played the first game against Lake Wales in a monsoon. Their grass field had standing water covering much of the surface. The rain all but eliminated our passing game," Ackley said. "That being said, we still had an advantage in nearly every statistical category. The one that mattered the most — turnovers — cost us the game."
The Indians, still reeling from their emotional defeat against Naples two weeks prior and a postgame incident that brought negative national attention, lost that game 19-14. Heavy rains made conditions tough, and the game play sloppy. Turnovers plagued the Indians and muddy conditions limited the team to just 130 total yards rushing in a game played almost exclusively on the ground.
"The weather was a major issue the last time we played. It was bad," Immokalee senior center Kerby Henry said. "We had nine fumbles during that wet game."
Last season, the Highlanders accounted for Immokalee's lone loss of the regular season — a 20-7 defeat in which Lake Wales used its considerable size advantage to push around the Indians.
"We've been shooting ourselves in the foot a lot against Lake Wales. Too many mistakes and it shows on film," Henry said.
Although Ackley downplays the thought, the desire for revenge for those two losses is definitely a factor heading into this game, even more so for Henry, who dislocated his elbow the last time these two teams met. It was one of several major injuries the Indians (9-3) have had to deal with this season.
"I believe this is going to be a dogfight and a very emotional game for me because this is the same team that almost ended my high school football career and possibly college career," Henry said. "My teammates and I knew what happened the first time we met in this season and we want to avenge that loss."
With no rain in the forecast for Friday, the Indians will look to capitalize on their considerable speed advantage — something that was affected by the wet conditions in their previous meeting — which will be even more considerable with the returns of running backs Jacky Marcellus and D'Ernest Johnson, who practiced fully this week after missing time due to injury and could be big contributors for Immokalee.
The Indians will also have a fully healthy Tshumbi Johnson at quarterback again. The senior has been nearly unstoppable this postseason since returning from a shoulder injury, accounting for 510 yards and five touchdowns in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
"We have what it takes to win this game," Henry said. "We just need to put the pieces together."
Lake Wales isn't likely to go down without a fight as it has proved with wins against Southeast and Palmetto by a combined total of just six points in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Those wins came courtesy of a bludgeoning ground game that marches downfield behind an offensive line featuring behemoth seniors Bobby Leath (6-foot-4, 290 pounds) and Deshaun Dunn (5-10, 270), and sophomore Luke Heirs (6-3, 265). Behind that line, the Highlanders have three running backs with over 50 carries this year — sophomore Justin Henderson (795 yards), senior Tony Reeves (572 yards) and bruising 6-0, 230-pound senior fullback Jonte Sargeant (7 TDs). Quarterback Railond Garrett (62 yards vs. Southeast) is also a threat to run at any point.
"Against a veer offense you cannot focus on particular players," Ackley said. "We have to maintain our gap responsibility and play assignment football. To win, our defense must be disciplined."
The Highlanders, however, do have a tendency to lose their heads in crucial situations, as evidenced by the 33 fumbles they have committed this year. Should the Indians be able to stay focused and limit their own mental mistakes, they could move on to next week's game at the winner of the Glades Central-Miami Jackson matchup.
"After our last game against Lake Wales, we did not feel that the better team won that night," Ackley added. "We want to prove that we are a better team."
2012 PREPZONE FOOTBALL: WEEK 14
- Video: Naples dominates Daytona-Mainland
- Video: Immokalee gets revenge over Lake Wales
- Video: First Baptist's dreams dashed
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- Prep football: Naples dominates Daytona-Mainland for Clas 6A Regional title
- Prep football: Immokalee revenges regular season loss to Lake Wales
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