Varsity Preps

Into the Lion’s Den

Did you ever think a program that dresses only 32 players, played all 13 games on the road, has no practice field and workout facilities, and even lacks a band and cheerleaders could compete for a state crown? Impossible, right?

Facing overwhelming hardships, Champagnat Catholic (13-0) steamrolled everyone on the schedule and playoff bracket on their way to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando where they’ll face 10-3 Victory Christian Academy for the 2A state championship.

The Lions posted four shutouts and won games by an average score of 41-7, and only allowed 1051 total yards of offense in the regular season.

Champagnat’s roster is littered with college prospects, including star defensive tackle Travonte Valentine (Miami), safety Michael Johnson (Louisville), running back Franklin Labady (Cincinnati) and wideout Jason Williams (Western Kentucky). The 2015 class is loaded, with receiver Steven Claude, defensive backs Melliek Jackson and Gerald Robinson, Jr., and running back Michael Frederick. The sophomore class has a trio of prospects in QB Kato Nelson, WR Darnell Salomon, and DB Antoine Webster that are well on their way to playing major college football.

Head coach Mike Tunsil has guided his road warriors to their first appearance in the state championship game, and feels all the traveling should pay off for his team Friday.

“I definitely think traveling to 13 different places to play is an advantage for us. That’s the way we’re treating it. Most squads are used to playing in their own backyard, but by us always having to get on the bus and even travel to practice, that should be a plus for us because we’re used to it.”

Champagnat’s opponent, Victory Christian, beat two good programs, Warner Christian 21-15 in the regional finals and North Florida Christian 46-41 in the semifinal en route to making their appearance in Orlando. Tunsil told Varsity Preps that Victory Christian is a worthy opponent.

“I think the world of them. They beat a state power in North Florida Christian to get here, so any team that gets here is good and we’re not taking them lightly. We had a good week of practice and we’re focused.”

Valentine said the championship stage and atmosphere isn’t too big for Champagnat.

“This is a great opportunity for us, but we can’t focus on our surroundings, just the team lined up in front of us.”

Senior defensive tackles Moises Rivera sees a difficult challenge ahead on Friday.

“They’re a great team and they have some outstanding players we’ll have to account for. We have a game on our hands, but we’re confident and focused.”

Tunsil said he won’t make significant changes to his game plan, sticking with what got them to Orlando in the first place.

“We’re going to play tough defense and run the ball, and we’ll use the running game to open up the passing game.”

Champagnat defensive asst. Jon Drummond talked about how the Lions arrived at 13-0 and playing for the state title.

“It took a lot of faith from players and coaches to get here,” he said. “When players come to a school like Champagnat with no tradition, it takes a lot of faith for them to believe they can learn and accomplish the same things here that they can at bigger, more well-known programs. When coaches can get their team to believe, that’s the most magical thing in coaching, and we’ve done that.”

Tunsil said a win for Champagnat would lay the foundation for a bright future for Lions football.

“It would put us up there with the better, smaller private schools in South Florida. I also think Champagnat would become an option for more student-athletes in the future looking for the type of education and experience we offer.”

Moving forward, Tunsil said he only worries about what he can control, not external factors and difficulties that Champagnat faces.

“I let the kids know we can only control what’s on the field. We can’t control what we don’t have. It’s a plus, but a lot of athletes see it as a disadvantage, but the kids work harder and we have to be more disciplined. It builds camaraderie and character because we have to share everything we have,” he said. “To outside observers, they see it as a negative, but we use our circumstances as a positive.”

– Michael Bradley

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