Best High School Football Games of 2021 in Northeast Florida

The 2021 high school football season is officially on the books — but not before creating memories that will last a lifetime.

Last second finishes. Career milestones. Post-season thrills.

In a year filled with highlights, the Times-Union looks back on some of the most exciting high school football contests of the past season.

Find out which grill thrillers made the Times-Union list.

Note: These selections were made based on games covered by USA Today’s network of reporters in Florida.

August 27: Atlantic Coast 27, Mandarin 24

Long on the losing end of the rivalry on the Southside, the Stingrays turned the tide to dominate the Mandarin in the season opener. Atlantic Coast took a 14-0 first-quarter lead, powered by Arthur Walker’s 196-yard rushing night, before Mandarin fought back to tie the score. Then Atlantic Coast got into position for Kristian Karoglan to score the game-winning basket when time expired.

Ciatrick Fason’s career as a head coach almost started with a solid win over the Saints. That’s before Chris Calhoun scored a touchdown with 33 ticks on the clock and Sandalwood could leave the range with a season-opening win. Fletcher’s defense snuffed out Calhoun and the Saints’ attack several times throughout the night, but couldn’t stop them one last time as the quarterback shoved his way into the area goals a few meters away.

Bolles running back Kade Frew (8) makes a cut as St. Augustine defenders chase during a high school football game on September 10, 2021. [Clayton Freeman/Florida Times-Union]

The defense tipped the scales as the Bulldogs rallied from behind to win an early battle of regional powers at Skinner-Barco Stadium. Bolles’ defense hadn’t given up a point all year until the Yellow Jackets came to town and took a 27-20 lead, boosted by 199 all-purpose yards from second Devonte Lyons. But Bolles’ defense took over with a safety and a backpack from Jack Pyburn, and Kade Frew – who went on to bat for 200 yards on 32 carries – rushed for the go-ahead score to keep the Perfect bulldogs.

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September 10: Columbia 27, Oakleaf 23

Oakleaf had Columbia dead in the dungeon and just couldn’t put the match away against their Lake City foes. The Tigers, coming off an embarrassing loss to Bolles, stagnated in attack for most of the night but found the energy to score the game’s final 15 points. Highlighted by Jace Hoskey’s 54-yard touchdown and run and a last-minute interception by Amare Ferrell, the Tigers escaped the clutches of Oakleaf.

September 17: Trinity Christian 53, Clearwater Academy International 50

For a moment, it seemed like the story would have to wait. Visiting Clearwater Academy International provided early bets, leaving Trinity unbeaten on the ropes in Conquerors coach Verlon Dorminey’s quest for a 300th win. Freshman Colin Hurley (18 of 29, 267 yards) got Trinity back in the lead, only for the Knights to go to the Conquerors’ 4 in the dying seconds. This time, the bet did not pay off; instead of a field goal, the Knights called a run and Caden Morrell recovered a fumble for Trinity to force overtime. From there, it was all Trinity: Seth Bialek tossed the teeing field, Cam Miller crushed the Knights’ final pass and the Conquerors cheered as Dorminey became Florida’s seventh coach to 300 wins.

October 8: Columbia 28, Riverside 26

Columbia scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and capitalized on Riverside’s six turnovers to beat their rivals. In a game that heavily impacted the District 3-6A crown, the Tigers came alive when they needed it most. Riverside took a 26-7 lead in the fourth quarter and looked set to claim victory as the Backyard swung. But Columbia scored once, then added another score, then another. And before long, they had gone ahead and left Riverside with more questions than answers. The win helped Columbia capture the district title in a thrilling victory for Tigers head coach Demetric Jackson.

St. Johns County rivals Bartram Trail and Creekside squared off in one of the best high school football games of the season.

October 15: Bartram Trail 16, Creekside 13

St. Johns County’s Game of the Year lived up to its bill. The Longleaf Pine Parkway rivals faced off in their most important competition ever, a District 1-8A decider, and at first it looked like a Creekside advantage. Aerial combination Jacob Dennie (14 of 22, 258 yards) and Brendon McMillan (nine catches, 193 yards), along with Preston Strope’s 47-yard touchdown run, gave the Knights a first-half lead. But Bartram Trail tied the score on Riley Trujillo’s pass to Jack Cremen and denied Creekside with Sharif Denson’s interception in the red zone with less than four minutes remaining. Finally, the Bears drove upfield and summoned kicker Liam Padron for the game-winner to clinch the district crown.

Fletcher offensive lineman Caelen Lavender (70) leads a charge of Senators players before a high school football game against Nease on Oct. 15.  The Senators won 14-13 to take first place in the 3-7A district.

October 15: Fletcher 14, Nease 13

Fletcher had come back strong from a 0-3 start but still needed a win to claim the district title, and with Nease quarterback Marcus Stokes giving the visitors a 13-0 lead, the Senators seemed sunk. But Aiden Heilmann cut the deficit with a touchdown reception, and after Fletcher took over at his 20 with three and a half minutes left, QB Marcelis Tate and running back Jabarri Williams led an 80-yard walk. Tate snuck over the goal line and Tarik Smajic scored the extra point with 17 seconds left to spark the celebrations.

Nease QB Marcus Stokes (2) runs for yardage during a playoff game against Spruce Creek.

November 12: Nease 24, Spruce Creek 21, playoffs

A blown lead. A hook-and-side. A blocked field goal to end the evening. This Region 1-7A quarterfinal had it all, and it ended in an upset win for the Panthers, a team transformed after their one-win seasons of 2019 and 2020. Dom’s 96-yard touchdown Marcus Stokes’ Henry put Nease in charge, only for the Hawks to erase a 21-7 lead in the final 4:28 on Sam Rizzo’s touchdown and two-point conversion. Unfazed, Stokes brought Nease up the field to set up Canaan Kimball’s 25-yard field goal. The drama wasn’t over: A hook and a Spruce Creek sideline to Brody Heffington advanced the ball to Nease’s 32, but Panthers linebacker Ben Bogle blocked Spruce Creek’s field goal as time ticked away.

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