Aaron Mitchell bulldozed his way into the end zone from six yards out late in the fourth quarter, extending an already comfortable lead for Navarre in its 6A regional semifinal against Tate.
But the touchdown, the first of the year for Mitchell, who primarily plays on defense, meant far more to him than another six points.
It was an opportunity to make good on a promise to help the Raiders avenge one of their most devastating losses in program history, a 23-22 double-overtime loss to the Aggies last year in a regional quarterfinal.
A year ago, Mitchell, who split time between running back and linebacker as a junior, couldn’t play. He was sidelined by a serious knee injury, an injury he didn’t fully recover from until September, but he remembers the pain of seeing a perfect regular season overshadowed by one tough loss.
On Friday night, the story was different. Mitchell was on the field playing a pivotal role in the Raiders’ dominating 60-28 win over the Aggies in front of a near sellout crowd at Pete Gindl Stadium in Cantonment.
“Redemption,” Mitchell said. “I told a lot of the seniors from the team last year that I’m playing this game for all of you. I couldn’t play in it last year and I felt horrible because I was a key part to the defense. I was happy we won this time and a lot of those seniors were here to see it.”
Mitchell’s TD pushed the Navarre advantage to 53-28 but it was Michael Carter who stole the show, rushing for four TDs and scoring another on a 93-yard kickoff return, propelling the Raiders (11-1) into a regional final showdown against St. Augustine (11-1) on the road next Friday night.
Like Mitchell, Carter was injured last season, tearing up his knee in week three. He’s come back faster and better than ever, rushing for more than 2,000 yards on the season.
“It’s awesome,” Carter said. “The playoffs are do or die and we feel like die is not an option,” Carter said. We have the mentality where we don’t expect to lose…ever. We want to keep it going all the way to state.”
Navarre has never played in a state championship game but did make it to the state semifinals four years ago.
Last year appeared to be the year the Raiders would finally go all the way after finishing 10-0 in the regular season. Tate ruined that dream in the opening round of the playoffs and Navarre head coach Jay Walls reminded his team of that.
“We said we had unfinished business,” Walls said. “It’s about going further in the playoffs and being the best ever at Navarre High School. That’s our goal. We’ll have the same goal next week. We want to be 1-0 again.”
It seemed early on as if this game might never end. Caine Adamson put the Raiders in front 7-0 less than four minutes into the game when he threw a perfect pass to Dante Wright, who caught the ball in stride and raced to the end zone on the 70-yard pass play.
Tate answered with a TD of its own but Carter gave the Raiders the lead back at 13-7 on a 93-yard kickoff return where he ran into a referee who couldn’t get out of the way in time and still stayed on his feet, shaking off a defender who was clinging to him and to get into the end zone.
Carter finished with 333 yards in the win.
“In those one-on-one situations, I just want it more,” Carter said.
The Aggies (9-3) went back on top 14-13 but another TD by Carter made the score 19-14. The Aggies led 21-19 before Carter scored again for a 25-21 lead. A blocked field goal attempt by Josh Carter secured a four-point lead for the Raiders at the half.
The defense took care of the rest, holding a dangerous Aggies offense to seven points in the final two quarters.
“The first half is kind of where we feel out the game,” Mitchell said. “The second half we put the lock on and swallow the key.”
Tate quarterback Jake Henry, the team’s leading passer and rusher, had no answer for the physical and aggressive Raiders. Bo Herring even picked off a pass late in the fourth that set up Omari Green’s short TD run for a 60-28 lead.
“We feed off each other,” Carter said. “Our defense is violent and nasty.”
The Raiders now shift their attention to the next game, facing a St. Augustine team that crushed Crestview 41-14. Behind a tremendous team effort, they’ll play at least one more week. The dream of a state title is alive and well.
“This is awesome for our kids,” Walls said. “Tate is an outstanding football team. They didn’t quit. But I’m proud of our kids. We made big plays on offense and defense. They came in fired up about playing football and we’re excited about playing again next week.”