They’ve scored at a better clip down the stretch than the area heavyweights and barrel into the second round of the state playoffs like they’ve been here before.
But the whole postseason thing is quite new for Menendez (8-3), which opened alongside St. Johns County school Bartram Trail in 2000, yet had never won a playoff game prior to last week. With a roaring offense sparked by a midseason injury, the Falcons don’t plan on going quietly this week either, even with a visit to red-hot Baker County (10-1) in the Region 2-5A semifinals on Friday night.
The Wildcats, who have won 10 consecutive games and field one of the area’s top defenses, are arguably a favorite to reach the state semifinals. But not so fast. One of Baker County’s most challenging games of the season came in Week 4 against Menendez.
“We’re a different team than when we matched up with Baker before,” said Falcons coach Patrick Turner, who is stepping down after the season to focus on his athletic director position. “I like the matchup. If the defense can hold the points back a little bit, force a turnover here or there, I like our chances.”
Back then, the Falcons were a much different looking team. They were shuffling through consistency issues with regularity — they went win-loss-win-loss-win-loss from August through the final week of September — before the switch finally flipped and hasn’t gone off since. They are averaging 45.8 points per game in the second half of the season, a number better than any remaining team on the First Coast.
That switch was two-fold.
The Falcons knew that they had the potential to be a better team from the outset, even if the record didn’t reveal that. And when injuries forced a shakeup to their offense, the second shift came in the form of defensive lineman Tye Edwards, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound jackhammer, who has given Menendez one of the area’s most explosive offenses in the latter half of the season.
“I wouldn’t say it’s all because of personnel, in practice we’ve really picked it up, everybody has stepped up, we’re really starting to click,” said fullback and linebacker Ryan Rice, the team’s leading tackler. “And we’re really using Tye’s athleticism to the best of our ability.”
When back Eugene Foster went down injured in a win over Palatka, the Falcons had to shake things up to keep their offense going. Menendez needed a back to package with its running quarterback Darian Oxendine and two-way player Kenny Logan. So they plucked Edwards off the defensive line and inserted him into the backfield, daring teams to try and bring him down.
The results have been dynamic. And with Foster pegged to return from injury this week, that Falcons offense could be even more diverse now.
“We were already a dangerous offense,” said Edwards, who has rushed for 803 yards and 12 touchdowns in essentially four games. “After the Clay game [it clicked].”
The Falcons put up 49 points in a 60-49 loss to Clay, and players say that was the defining moment to show just what the team was capable of.
“Just after that Clay game, really, everyone was feeling comfortable,” said senior offensive lineman Tyler Bates. “That really showed us that we could compete with anyone.”
After that, the Falcons have rained down points at a higher rate than any of the area’s remaining 10 playoff teams. In games played in October and November, Menendez is averaging 45.8 ppg, a better number than Bradford (44.6), Bartram Trail (44.3), Raines (44), St. Augustine (42.3) and Clay (41.5), not bad for a newcomer who’s playing like it has been here before.
“It’s been a good run, we’ve really enjoyed this season a lot,” Turner said. “The cool thing is whoever takes over, the cupboard is pretty full. All these guys are young. It should be fun for the next couple years. We’ve really turned it around at both levels [high school and the Falcons feeder program, Gamble Rogers Middle School] and you’re starting to see the results.”