At this year’s 30th annual Lou Groza Awards program, hosted by the Palm Beach County Sports Commission, three of the four local awards were presented to football players and a football team from the western communities.
The awards ceremony was held virtually on Wednesday, Dec. 8. Palm Beach Central High School running back Markel King was named the Palm Beach County Player of the Year, Seminole Ridge High School place kicker Hayden Gray was named the Palm Beach County Placekicker of the Year and Palm Beach Central High School was named as the Palm Beach County Team of the Year. The Coach of the Year Award was won by Jim Basford, the head coach of Forest Hill High School in West Palm Beach.
King, a senior, led his team to the Class 8A regional final this year. The team fell to Treasure Coast High School in that game, which was played at Palm Beach Central. That loss was the only blemish on Palm Beach Central’s season-long record. The Broncos finished 10-1.
Statistically, King was brilliant this past season. He rushed for 1,083 yards, caught 28 passes for 636 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. His yards per rushing attempt were attention-getting at 16.9 yards a carry.
King, who was a transfer from Park Vista High School, had a huge impact on Palm Beach Central’s football program in his one year with the team.
“Markel is the best player in South Florida,” Palm Beach Central head coach Scottie Littles said. “This award validates his talent as a football player.”
According to Littles, King’s positive attitude and team-first approach was noticed by every player and coach at Palm Beach Central.
“As good as he was on the field, he was an even better person off the field,” Littles said. “He loved his teammates and his coaches. He never wanted the attention. He was just focused on the team doing well. I can’t wait to see him play on Saturdays in college next fall.”
Littles confirmed that King will play college football next year, but King has not made a final decision on what college he will attend.
King joins an exclusive list of past Palm Beach County Player of the Year recipients. The list includes present and past NFL players such as Fred Taylor (Glades Central/University of Florida), Anquan Boldin (Pahokee/Florida State University), Jacoby Brissett (William T. Dwyer/University of Florida and North Carolina State University) and Lamar Jackson (Boynton Beach/University of Louisville). Brissett is currently a backup quarterback with the Miami Dolphins, and Jackson is the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens.
King is the second football player from Palm Beach Central to win the Player of the Year Award. The first was defensive back Akeem Dent, who plays football at Florida State University.
As a placekicker, Gray made seven of nine field goals this year and went 29 for 33 on extra point attempts. Gray was stunned and delighted when he heard his name announced as Placekicker of the Year.
“When I heard my name announced as a winner, I was in shock,” Gray said. “It was absolutely breathtaking to be acknowledged with such a prestigious award. Many kickers have gone on to do great things after winning this award, and I hope I will be able to do the same.”
The highlight of Gray’s season was his 37-yard game-winning field goal against Sebastian River High School back on Oct. 15. In that game, with 1:06 left on the clock in the fourth quarter and the game tied at 14, Seminole Ridge head coach Rick Casko called a timeout.
When play resumed with the ball sitting on the Sebastian River 20-yard line, it was time for Gray to do what he had been practicing all season. Make the kick to win the game. “I was ready for it, and it felt great after it left my foot,” Gray said. “I knew it was good.”
Gray was also Seminole Ridge’s punter, and he handled kickoffs, too.
“He’s an excellent punter who did a great job of getting punts to finish inside the red zone,” Casko said. “He helped us win the field possession battle in many games.”
Besides kicking the ball, Casko successfully used Gray once this past season as a passer.
“In our game against Dwyer, we ran a fake punt on fourth down with Hayden, and it worked,” Casko recalled. “He completed a pass for more than 30 yards. It was a great pass, and we got the first down. We eventually won that game. I called the play ‘QB Once’ because it was the one time that Hayden played quarterback. We added the play to our playbook that week, and we used it.”
In addition to being a placekicker, Gray is also a member of the weightlifting and track teams at Seminole Ridge.
“He’s a great weightlifter, and in track, he runs the 800 meters and does the pole vault,” Casko said. “Last year, he learned how to pole vault by watching a YouTube video, and he advanced to regionals.”
Gray is also an outstanding student who is interested in attending the U.S. Air Force Academy after high school.
“Hayden is intelligent, respectful, strong and so respected by his teammates,” Casko said. “He’s an all-round great young man.”
The season was the best in school history for the Palm Beach Central Broncos. It included an undefeated regular season for the first time in the history of the program. In the 10 victories, the Bronco offense was prolific. The Broncos averaged 39.4 points per game. The defense was equally talented and tough throughout the season, giving up an average of 15.4 points per game. Two other season highlights for the Broncos were winning a regular season district title and retaining the Wellington Cup when they narrowly defeated rival Wellington High School, 17-14.
While the loss against Treasure Coast was a tough way to end the season, it served as a wake-up call for Palm Beach Central’s players and coaches. “We had a great year, and we learned a great deal about what it takes to win big games,” Littles said. “We are no longer the new kids on the block here in Palm Beach County. If we want to be a championship-style program, we have to prepare like a championship-style program.”
Littles says that preparations for the 2022 football season will start in the weight room in early January when the players return from the holidays.