JENSEN BEACH — The No. 2 Jensen Beach Falcons danced into the FHSAA 3S regional final with a 26-23 overtime over the No. 3 Sebring Blue Streaks.
Dennis Palmer Jr. clinched the regional semifinal win for Jensen Beach (10-2) with a 10-yard touchdown catch from Gio Casione on its first offensive play of overtime.
“DP is Mr. Reliable,” Falcons head coach Tim Caffey said moments after he was mobbed by his players for a mid-interview dance party.
“He is cool, calm and collected. He knows that I am going to go to him in a clutch situation and he has never failed. He has outstanding character and he is an outstanding kid. He is a highly under-recruited kid and I will say it again, he is one of the best backs on the east coast of Florida and he is clutch.”
Palmer — a junior running back who is being recruited by Florida Atlantic — came through for Jensen Beach on multiple occasions, most notably coming up with the game-winning touchdown and the game-sealing interception against Marjory Stoneman Douglas on Sept. 16.
But none of those moments could come close to this one.
“It is a feeling that I have never felt before,” Palmer said. “This is really amazing. You only experience this a couple times in your life and I am blessed to feel those emotions.”
The Falcons jumped out to an early 13-0 lead over Sebring (8-3) with some help from their defense.
Zack Riggins-Wilson got Jensen Beach going after it went three-and-out on its opening drive by forcing a fumble on a sack that Carlos McCormack recovered at the 5. Cascione and Jamari Marshall then connected on a short touchdown pass to give the Falcons a 6-0 lead with 4:32 to go in the first quarter following a blocked punt.
Jensen Beach forced a three-and-out on the ensuing drive. Sebring would botch the punt on the ensuing drive and recover at its 1-yard line to set the Falcons up for a prime goal-line opportunity. Palmer cashed in on it immediately with a quick rushing touchdown with 2:58 left in the opening quarter.
Wilney Francois quickly answered that with a 45-yard rushing touchdown just over a minute later. He would get right back to work again after Dylan Fatovich returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown with seven seconds left in the first quarter.
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Sebring found itself pinned at its 1-yard line after a goal-line stop and Francois strung together four big plays — including a 45-yard touchdown — to cut Jensen Beach’s lead back to one score. A Josiah Taylor interception then set up a 40-yard touchdown pass from Len Grant to Dyveon Collymore with 12 seconds left in the half to tie the game.
That was where the score stood until the end of regulation.
Sebring started with the ball and opted for a field goal after going three-and-out and Palmer closed it out on his own.
Jensen Beach will play the winner of Saturday’s semifinal matchup between No. 1 Rockledge and No. 4 Mainland in the 3S Regional Final.
“At this particular point in time, it does not really matter who we play against,” Caffey said. “Whoever shows up shows up. It’s not going to be a case of ‘I prefer this team over that team.’ Every team is good at this particular point of time. Every team is battle-tested, so we’ll go into it with the mindset of whoever it is, we are ready.”
Here are three takeaways from Jensen Beach’s regional semifinal victory:
Falcons overcame red zone struggles to take the victory
Jensen Beach found itself with multiple quality opportunities to score but had one bad bounce go its way multiple times. In one instance, the Falcons had a crack at first-and-goal from the 5 up 20-7 after a big 45-yard run from Palmer.
They were stuffed at the goal line on all four plays and it helped Sebring jump back into the game. But Palmer and Jensen Beach did not give up — he ran that same play he was stopped on to win the game in overtime.
“During the first half we tried that play a couple of times and we didn’t get it,” Palmer said. “At the end of the game, we stuck with it, the offensive line.“
Jensen Beach defense shuts down Sebring in the clutch
When the Falcons’ offense was dealing with struggles in the second half, their defense was coming up with multiple big plays to help keep them in the game.
On its biggest play of the game, Jensen Beach’s defensive line — led by Julius Puryear — hurried Sebring backup quarterback Sebastian Reeves into throwing a ball just ahead of an open Francois in the dying seconds of regulation.
“Those guys fly around the ball,” Caffey said. “I say it all the time and I will say it again: Melvin Phillips is a great defensive coordinator. He allows his kids to play in the right positions and they fly around. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ is our motto. Every man, even when we got beat on the deep passes, is like ‘that’s OK we will stop them next time. There is never really a down attitude. They fly to the ball with reckless abandonment and they enjoy it.”
Falcons overcome doubts with self-belief
The Falcons fought hard through a tough schedule during the regular season — taking down fellow playoff teams Dwyer and Stoneman Douglas in the process.
A lot of people wrote this team off as a “good story” that would lose early in the playoffs but a sense of self-belief and a good work ethic helped Jensen Beach spark its run to the regional final.
“We’ve been working on it for a long time. These kids just believe,” Caffey said. “This was one of those types of games where you have the right kids in the right places at the right time. They are hard workers — you are not gonna outwork them and you are not going to get them down. They always believe that they have a chance, and when you have a team like that believes in chances, they don’t ask for them, they make them.”