FORT PIERCE — It’s been a while since John Cspanrroll Cspantholic’s football team has been in the Final Four.
The Golden Rams play at Trinity Catholic in Ocala on Friday in a Class 1S state semifinal. It’s their first Final Four appearance since 2003.
Just to emphasize how long it’s been since that team’s postseason run, current Golden Rams coach Mickey Groody was a sixth grader at St. Coleman Catholic School in Pompano Beach and none of the current team’s players were even born.
“It’s 19 years later,” said current Vero Beach coach Lenny Jankowski, who coached John Carroll in 2003. “In addition to making me feel really old, it’s pretty cool to look back on it now. We had a really tight-knit group. It was a cool experience as it was happening.”
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The Golden Rams won 11 games and were a regional champion in Class 2B in 2003. The team was loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, including All-Area Defensive Player of the Year Stephen Purkey, all-state wide receiver Cedric Wilson, all-state running back/linebacker Lester Graham and wide receiver/running back Mackey Davis.
Purkey, who signed with Delaware, had 126 tackles, 12 sacks and 11 blocked kicks in 2003 and was hailed by Jankowski as “the best defensive player ever at John Carroll” during his senior year.
Graham and Wilson both went on to sign with Kansas State. Wilson had 116 catches for 2,293 yards and 21 touchdowns in his career, all of which were area records when he graduated.
The team also had a young linebacker/edge rusher Matt Marcorelle, who played in the 2007 Division I-AA national championship game at Delaware — alongside Blue Hens quarterback and future Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco — before signing with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent.
“That team was incredibly talented,” said current Fort Pierce Central coach Mike Watkins, who volunteered as an assistant at John Carroll in 2003 between stints in NFL Europe. “Coming out to the first practice and listening to the first day of contact, I had a thought, ‘Man! This sounds a little different than when I was in high school.’”
Jankowski said that John Carroll team was not only talented, but willing to do whatever it took to win.
“I remember at the time it being a really neat deal,” Jankowski said. “We didn’t have the social media that’s out there now. We just had scrappy players that believed in team first. They would run through a wall for each other. It was really neat and a lot of fun.”
John Carroll beat St. Petersburg Catholic 31-14 at home in a game that Lester dominated, then went to Clearwater Central Catholic — a team with future NFL wide receiver Riley Cooper — and won 37-14, setting up a state semifinal game at top-ranked Pahokee.
That Pahokee team was led by future Parade All-American and Florida State running back Antone Smith as well as Alphonso Smith, who would earn All-American honors at Wake Forest and was a second-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
The Golden Rams struck first when Purkey tipped a pass and Graham intercepted a pass and took it 80 yards for a score.
The game was tied at 7 late in the first half and John Carroll was driving when the game turned on its head.
“We had a chance right before halftime to go in with a lead,” Jankowski said. “We got close to the goal line and ran a little motion bubble screen and were under center. He was going to walk in and we didn’t block the A gap for some reason.
“We had a mix-up, and no one blocked the nose guard. He hit the quarterback and went 99 yards. That’s a 14-point swing. Instead of us going in with a lead, we went in and we were down seven. It struck up the band and the crowd and woke up a sleeping giant a little bit.”
Pahokee won that game 26-7 in a game with five defensive touchdowns. John Carroll committed seven turnovers in the game.
“That was the best defense I’ve ever played against,” John Carroll quarterback Kevin O’Brien said after the game. “Everywhere I threw, they seemed to be there. They were so quick.”
Jankowski still calls the loss “gut-wrenching,” but he’s able to appreciate what the team accomplished during that season. He’s also able to admire what this John Carroll team — led by one of his former assistant coaches — has done so far.
“It’s pretty cool that coach Groody has had the success he’s had and now he has an opportunity to take them even past the final four,” Jankowski said.