Dreadnaughts Rule the Reservation
by Defeating the Indians, 21-14.

Lakeland overcame an early turnover and deficit to win its eighth state championship in school history.

The Dreadnaughts relied on their stable of running backs, including Don’Ares Johnson (21 carries, 131 yards), D’Marius Rucker (10 carries,
64 yards) and Markell Johnson (12 carries, 38 yards) to secure the victory.

Zach Pleuss (QB), who was also an integral part of the win, completed 10-of-17 passes for a touchdown and added 30 yards rushing, including a score.

Lakeland outgained Venice by a total offensive differential of 394-127 yards.

The beginning of the game appeared as a nightmare more than a dream season for the Dreadnaughts. On the second play from scrimmage, Pleuss threw an interception to Elliott Washington (FS), and Venice took possession at the Lakeland 27-yard line. Two plays later, Brooks Bentley (QB) called his own number and raced for a 20-yard touchdown with 10:42 in the first quarter.

Lakeland responded in championship fashion with a 13-play drive, which covered 72 yards, took almost seven minutes from the clock, and ended with a 6-yard scoring plunge by Markell Johnson (RB).

Venice countered with a virtuoso 11-play, 80-yard drive that climaxed when Alvin Johnson III (RB) rushed four yards and gave the Indians the lead, 14-7.

As he played a critical role in the Dreadnaughts’ win over Kissimmee Osceola, Omari Mixon (TE) profoundly impacted this victory by catching three passes for 69 yards and a touchdown. With only seconds remaining before halftime, Pleuss took the snap and connected with a quarantined Mixon in the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown as time expired. The score knotted the game at 14-14.

The Dreadnaughts concluded their scoring with approximately two minutes in the third quarter. Pleuss directed an 8-play, 62-yard drive which ended in the game-winning score as he ran six yards to the end zone.

Lakeland’s defense turned into a dominant performance, especially in the second half. The Dreadnaughts held the Indians to 127 yards, including only 53 in the second half. Rolijah Hardy (LB) led the Dreadnaughts with eight solo tackles and 12 total tackles. Larry Jones (DE/MLB), who missed the state semifinal game, was unblockable as he registered 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. Brooks Bentley, sacked six times, finished only 3-of-12 for 41 yards passing.

With the win, Coach Castle added another chapter to his legendary career. His record is an astonishing 8-1 in state championship games with wins over Dunedin (1986), St. Thomas Aquinas (1996, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2018), Rutherford (1999) and Venice (2022). Coach Castle has led Lakeland to state championships in five separate decades, spanning three classifications. Earlier this season, he eclipsed Corky Rogers (Robert E. Lee High School and Jacksonville Bolles School) to become the all-time winningest coach in State of Florida history with 474 wins. The FHSAA previously named Coach Castle as its Coach of the Century in 2007, prior to the Dreadnaughts’ two most recent state championships.