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Davenport quarterback Brinley Vandiver (0) throws a pass. Haines City defender is Christopher Benton (44) and Davenport lineman is No. 51 Gabriel Quintanilla.

The Davenport-Haines City varsity football series hit the ground running.

That meant adding a new milestone to Davenport High’s growing list of historical firsts this year. And the news was even better for a resurgent Haines City program that not only picked up the program’s first shutout since 2018, but also secured its third victory of the 2021 regular season under new head coach Pat Herrington.

The Hornets flew around the field during a 38-0 triumph on Friday, Sept. 24, while the first-year Broncos found little room to gallop on their home turf. Haines City made the short trip home with a 3-1 record, whereas Davenport now meets the challenge of having dropped its last three decisions following a Week 1 victory over Parrish Community High.

Haines City’s wing-T offense powered its way to three rushing touchdowns, a clutch touchdown pass at the end of the first half and a quartet of two-point conversions. A strong pass rush (led in part by hard-charging junior Christopher Benton) and solid play in the secondary slowed Davenport quarterback Brinley Vandiver and the Broncos’ high-volume passing game, and the special teams did its part with a blocked punt return for a score.

“The guys played real hard,” Herrington, in his second stint as Haines City head coach after serving in that role during the early 2000s, said. “We prepared for the big quarterback [Vandiver] and he’s a great player on film and he’s tough. He can sling it around and we just tried to stay in his face and be aggravating. When you face a quarterback that good and that big and that physical, we felt we needed to play press and send some heat. We wanted to press those [receivers] up and hope our pass rush got there.”

The Hornets, like fellow Polk County school Lake Region, are a Florida High School Athletic Association independent program this season and do not participate in the state playoff process. Haines City’s schedule continues Friday (Oct. 1) with a rescheduled game against visiting Parrish Community, and the Hornets welcome the opportunity to be even more successful after they doubled up Liberty in the 2021 opener (stopping the program’s streak of 20 straight regular-season losses) and had a 40-point win over Mulberry in Week 4.

“The kids have bought into what we’re doing,” Herrington said. “It started in the spring with the workouts, and I always say that we basically took a stick of dynamite and blew up the program and started back with a foundation of discipline, hard work and accountability. It started in the spring and then everything we did this summer was about competition.”

Davenport (1-3) returns home Friday for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff against Liberty. The Class 4A Broncos were eighth among the 10 teams in Region 3 when the FHSAA released its initial RPI rankings with a 0.31944 mark – the top six RPI finishers in each region make the Class 4A state playoffs – but head coach Jeff George Jr. reiterated the importance of simply improving each week.

“We were excited and anytime you get a home game it’s good because we have a really good crowd as you’ve seen,” George Jr. said. “[Haines City] made a lot of plays and we didn’t and that’s what it comes down to. We have a very young team as everyone knows, but I don’t make excuses and I tell my team not to make excuses. We didn’t make the plays.

“We’ll watch film and I have a lot of faith in all my coaches. Of course, we want to come out here and win every game and compete, but there are growing pains.”

Haines City made a big play early against Davenport when Benton went up the middle and helped block a punt. Ke’shon Tyler scooped up the loose ball along the right sideline and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown, giving the Hornets a 6-0 lead with 6:13 remaining in the first quarter.

“The blocked punt was a huge momentum-changer, and then the defensive line was on the sideline ready to get back in and try to get another score,” Herrington said. “If each facet of our game scores, it helps us feed off each other and right now we’ve got pretty good balance with all that.”

“Blocking that punt and going back for a touchdown really took some wind out of our sails, but it’s adversity,” George Jr. said. “I tell our kids in an adverse situation how are we going to respond, and we didn’t respond well. We didn’t get stops when we needed stops and we didn’t score when we needed to score.”

Haines City overcame fumbling issues on offense and penalties on both sides of the ball to lead 32-0 at halftime.

Omarion Nimmens had first-half scoring runs of 5 and 17 yards to go along with three two-point conversions. The Hornets also reached the end zone seconds before halftime when junior Henry Tolliver – who shared quarterbacking duties with freshman Rocky Pieriche - spotted sophomore Jean Albert behind the defense for a 50-yard touchdown pass.

“We just run an offense that suits our guys,” Herrington said. “We’re not going to run something that doesn’t suit our guys. We’ve got some running backs that run the ball tough, and we just try to work on ball security and keep going. The key to our running game is if Nimmens is running hard, the other two wingbacks want the ball too. It’s just like with the quarterback battle, and now all the running backs are vying for the spot to get the ball and score. We’re just making each other better by creating competition.”

Haines City took the second-half kickoff and chewed up much of the third quarter with a drive capped by Tyler’s 3-yard touchdown run. A running clock then went into effect following the Hornets’ fourth and final scoring drive.

Davenport’s best scoring chance happened midway through the second quarter. Vandiver, who entered the game with 825 passing yards and six touchdowns and earlier this month received an offer from the Allen University Yellow Jackets in Columbia, S. C., connected with Izayah Harris on a long completion to the Haines City 15-yard line.

The Broncos reached the 5 where a second-and-goal play lost 12 yards. Incomplete passes followed on the next two downs as Vandiver scrambled away from oncoming rushes.

“We’ll go back to the drawing board, and we’ll fix that,” George Jr. said. “We’ve got to give [Vandiver] time. We have a weapon back there, but if he has no time we can’t do as much. We’ll be better next week – we’ve got Liberty next – and we’ll progress.”

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