The district champion Palm Beach Central High School varsity football team weathered an early storm Friday, Nov. 9 in a Class 8A regional quarterfinal matchup to defeat crosstown rival Wellington High School by a score of 44-14. The victory was the second against the Wolverines this season for the host Broncos.
Wellington opened up the game on offense with star athlete Mark Antony Richards at quarterback but could not drive closer than the Palm Beach Central 39-yard line. The Broncos (10-1,4-0) struck first after a solid drive but settled for a 24-yard Tanner Nairn field goal to take an early 3-0 first quarter lead. The Wolverines responded, this time with Austin Wallace under center. Wallace connected with receiver Balitan Celestin on a 33-yard touchdown pass to go up 7-3, which stood to close out the first quarter.
The Wellington defense slowed a rolling Bronco offense and forced a 32-yard field goal to close the Wolverine lead to 7-6. From there, the Wolverines struggled on offense and special teams.
A short punt set up another opportunity for the Broncos with possession in Wellington terrain. Palm Beach Central drove inside to the one-yard line, where quarterback Michael Moreland ran it in to reclaim the lead 13-7.
The Broncos had a possible chance late in the first half to extend that lead as they broke midfield, but the Wellington defense forced a fumble after a reception over the middle, which put the Wolverine offense back on the field. The Bronco defense denied the Wolverines any real estate to notch another first half score and took the 13-7 lead into the locker room.
Palm Beach Central’s offense took the field to start the second half and found themselves against a fourth-and-two situation, which was converted by moving the chains. The decision later paid off when the Broncos capped a 70-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown from running back C.J. Stewart. The score extended the Bronco lead to 20-7.
“We had a heart-to-heart with the boys in the locker room at halftime,” Bronco coach Tino Ierulli said. “It was a completely different halftime than last time we played them, so I think they just woke up. We’re a second half team, but you can’t afford to do that in the playoffs. You have to finish all four quarters.”
Wellington mixed things up on offense using Wallace and Richards to move the ball, driving to the Palm Beach Central 25-yard line, but penalties pushed the Wolverines back, which eventually forced them to attempt a 53-yard field goal that fell short with four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Wellington was handed another opportunity with a short Bronco punt, but the Wolverines could get no farther than the Bronco 40-yard line, when Richards threw a deep ball into the end zone that was intercepted.
The turnover sparked the Palm Beach Central offense, which only took five plays to add to their lead 27-7 to start the fourth quarter. Moreland kept the ball and crossed the goal from five yards out.
Wellington’s hopes began to slip away when the Broncos added two more quick scores to take a 41-7 lead with two minutes remaining. The Wolverines added one more score when quarterback Blake Kendall threw an 80-yard touchdown to Finlay Toussaint to slightly close the gap. The Broncos cruised the remainder to a 44-14 win.
The victory sets up a rematch with Broward County’s Western High School. Western eliminated the Broncos last year from advancing in the playoff picture. The stage is set for Friday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. at Palm Beach Central High School.
“Hopefully, we jump out on the lead and finish the game like we’re supposed to do,” Ierulli said, reflecting back to last season’s heartbreaking loss where the Broncos let go of a 12-0 halftime lead. “We get them back on our home field.”
For the Wolverines (6-5, 3-1), the season has come to an end.
“With Wellington and Palm Beach Central making the playoffs in 8A competition, that tells you something,” Wellington head coach Tom Abel explained. “Wellington has strong football; it’s a testament to the kids in the area.”
It also ends an era of Richards in Wellington. Since Abel has taken over the Wolverine program, he has always had a Richards on the squad, starting with Ahmmon, Mark Antony’s older brother. Next year will mark Abel’s first without a Richards dressing in the blue and white.
“Words can’t say enough,” Abel explained. “I love both those Richards boys dearly, and they’ve helped change the face of Wellington football, single handed.”