With a new head coach and a young roster, Plant City narrowly edged out a victory over Strawberry Crest last week.
Michael Clayton, the newest head coach for Plant City football, got his first taste of game action last week as the Raiders headed to Armwood High School for their spring football game against Strawberry Crest.
After Strawberry Crest marched right down the field on their opening possession, taking a 7-0 lead by way of a touchdown pass from Jordan Lewis, they took over again after Plant City failed to convert on a fourth down pass in Chargers territory. But the Raiders’ defense stood strong and the Plant City was able to strike on their ensuing punt return.
Plant City junior wide receiver Eden Williams fielded the punt and after making several tacklers miss, darted down the left sideline for a touchdown. Junior Zykee Joyce hauled in the two-point conversion to give the Raiders an 8-7 lead and they would hold on for the spring victory.
“Life is good,” Clayton said about his first few months as a head coach. “It’s always good to win. We got off to a late start so we were a bit behind the gun for a lot of guys suiting up in pads today. So we knew that we were going to be in for a tough challenge against a strong football team that’s been together for a long time. We’ve installed a new offense and I’m extremely proud of the guys who came out, worked hard for one month, put in what we needed to put in and came out and got the win today.”
Spring football is always limited for what it is. The game consists of just two quarters, time to prepare is limited and your roster is rarely finalized as it doesn’t yet feature any of the following fall’s incoming freshman or transfer players. But spring football is a chance to set a tone and begin building the foundation for the following year’s fall season.
“We’ve got a really, really young team,” Clayton said. “I’ve only got five seniors but that’s a good thing to have. We’ve got a nice freshman class hopefully that’s coming in to Plant City, some guys that are going to compete for starting jobs. We’re going to look completely different in the fall and to say that the guys we have — to come out here and win in high school, with a team full of freshman and sophomores and a few juniors — that says a lot. In the next three or four years I feel like we can build this program to a championship caliber team. We’re not there yet, we’ve got a ways to go, but little by little, each and every day, as long as these guys buy into the process we’re going to get there and I have full confidence that we will.”
A young team indeed as Plant City lost a number of extremely talented and impactful seniors from the 2021 season, several of which will be going on to play at the college level next season. The Raiders’ four leading receivers were all seniors in 2021, including Jae Sawyer signed to Colgate University, Jaylen Gadson signed to Florida Memorial University and Romello Jones signed to the United States Naval Academy. Their top rusher, Reggie Bush Jr., is signed to Alderson Broaddus. Defensive backs Jermarian Jackson and Ian Jolly are signed to Robert Morris University and Southeastern University, respectively. Their sack leader, defensive end D.J. Haynes, is committed to Tennessee Tech University. They’re starting quarterback from 2021, Clint Danzey, is entering his senior season this fall but will be doing so at Stranahan High School in Fort Lauderdale.
So Clayton understands that the Raiders are in a re-building process, but he’s confident in the future of the program and what it will look like in the years to come.
“Usually there’s a lot of big guys and there’s always a lot of talent in Plant City,” Clayton said. “Today, when we took the field, we’re a little bit undersized compared to most Plant City teams that have taken the field in past years. That’s one thing that we deal with but the players that I’ve really gotten excited about, guys like Cole Highsmith, I literally took the job because of him. He was in my interview process and the questions that he was asking me just lit a fire in me and I said, if we’ve got one or two guys like that, we’re going to win and we’re going to be competitive. So when you’ve got guys like that, guys like Eden Williams, they make football fun. Zykee Joyce is a young star player in the making, he and Jaylen Smith are both high-caliber receivers on the side and I coach the receivers, so it makes me feel good the way they play the game of football. Having those young players who are leaders on the team and can make big plays in the game, like Eden Williams did today, it’s always exciting to have those type of players because they’re going to bring more excitement to your football program. Young kids are showing up, watching these guys show up big on Friday night and it keeps the championship culture alive in Plant City.”
One thing that may kickstart the road to building a championship program came the following day as eighth grade quarterback Dereon Coleman announced that he will be attending Plant City High School this fall as an incoming freshman.
A Plant City native, Coleman was named an Under Armour Next All-American in 2021, also on the roster for Under Armour Next’s 8th Grade Game. Each year for the 8th Grade Game, 75 of the best eighth grade football players from across the nation converge in Orlando to train and compete during All-America Game Week, with Coleman featured among that selective group.
As an eighth-grade student, Coleman was the starting quarterback for Fort Meade High School’s varsity football team this past fall, leading the Miners to a 5-5 record while completing 59.5 percent of his passes for 1,180 yards and 12 touchdowns.
But as Clayton made clear when he took over as head coach, he fully intends to make his presence felt in the Plant City community far beyond the white lines and Friday night lights that bring the Raiders’ football field to life in the fall.
“I didn’t expect to be at the school all day to make sure that kids are going to class, but I did know that if I took the job that I would need to buy in 100 percent, that my demeanor and my presence needed to be felt throughout the day,” Clayton said. “So I went and got my substitute teaching license so that I could be on campus all day, monitoring the kids walking to class and their tempo, because the moment I took this job I said that you’re a representation of our football team everywhere you go. In class, when you’re at home, you’re a representation of Plant City football. So it was important for me to get involved in that and I didn’t know how difficult of a challenge that was at first, but at Plant City we have tremendous support. Every teacher in the school has my number, they utilize our program to make our athletes better student athletes and I’ve gotten to know a lot of teachers. It didn’t last long before our guys were in order because they don’t want to pay that price. We shoot for academics first. I was taught by the best in Coach Saban, I told the guys that I will not deviate and it’s been a great challenge for me but I love every minute of it.”