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Speedy Trinity Christian shakes up formula to reach 3A final

Clayton Freeman
Florida Times-Union
Trinity Christian defensive backs Christian Ellis (2) and Harold Stubbs (21) celebrate their state semifinal victory over Ocala Trinity Catholic on Dec. 4.

Verlon Dorminey knew the game was changing.

So, after nearly 30 years at the helm of Trinity Christian's football powerhouse, he decided the time was right to shake up a tried-and-tested defensive formula — and it's worked.

"The way the game has progressed over the years, it's spread out more, the ball's getting thrown around a whole lot more," Dorminey said. "If you're still playing with the big, prototypical inside linebackers and the big defensive linemen, you're not going to get to tackles."

Smaller, quicker and tough to escape, the Conquerors play once again for a state championship when they take on Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna in Wednesday night's Class 3A Florida High School Athletic Association final at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee.

They're back in familiar territory, with a newly-tweaked approach.

Trinity's defense has been quick for years — witness the parades of defensive backs to the college ranks like Kevin Toliver (LSU), Shaun Wade (Ohio State) and Fred Davis (Clemson) — and linebackers like Eriq Gilyard (UCF) and Andre Smith (North Carolina).

But now, going even smaller and even quicker — Dorminey describes Trinity's current defense as built around "people 195 or 200 pounds that can run" — they're establishing a solid barricade to the end zone.

"It's really a new defense," Dorminey said. "We've been running odd fronts for years, but we switched to an even front. We're playing with a lot of linebackers, which makes us a whole lot quicker to the football."

Anybody trying to escape from the Conquerors' swarming linebacker corps, which includes the likes of C.J. Ross (committed to South Florida), Lucius Lattimore (Florida A&M) and junior prospects Bryce Capers and Johnathan Goddard, knows what that quickness can do.

And behind them? A secondary to rank among the best in the state.

A unit with seniors Corey Coley (Mandarin), Terrell Jackson (Army) and Jahron Williams, plus juniors Christian Ellis and Kensly Johnson, has turned the defensive backfield into a no-fly zone.

"We feed off each other, our energy," Ellis said. "We've got a lot of players wanting to make plays, we're hungry and we're going to fight."

Only three teams have scored more than 14 points against Trinity Christian this season: Bolles and Columbia in the first two games of the season, and Ocala Trinity Catholic last week. In the latter case, the Conquerors gave up most of those points in the late going with the game already in hand.

They slammed the door on eight others, held to single-digit scoring or no points at all, including Broward County giant Plantation American Heritage in a 3-0 victory.

"When you hold them to zero points," Dorminey said, "that's a good night."

Trinity Christian lost its season opener against Bolles, but since then, they've roared through the rest of the season with 11 consecutive victories.

Conquerors players point to their dominant run in mid-October — 33-7 over Mandarin, the American Heritage victory, a 14-6 success against Lee — as the stretch when the new defense began firing at full speed.

"Once that happened," Coley said, "I knew we were going to be a problem for teams."

The defense was always a strong point for the Conquerors. They just needed the offense to catch up.

That part took a while. Wide receiver Marcus Burke missed long stretches of the regular season with hamstring injuries. Kaleb Killian needed time to recover from a 2019 knee injury. Treyaun Webb, who was out of action of most of 2019 with a shoulder injury, was sidelined again for parts of 2020.

When they all get together, look out.

"With Kaleb getting healthier, with Burke getting healthier, with Ja'Cory [Jordan, at quarterback] getting more confidence with Burke back in the offense, it's really helped us," Dorminey said.

Trinity Christian running back Darnell Rogers celebrates a second-half touchdown against Ocala Trinity Catholic on Dec. 4.

That's what the Conquerors showed the state in the Class 3A semifinal at Ocala Trinity Catholic, rampaging past the Celtics for 56 points and 522 yards of offense in a performance that even surprised some of their own players.

"I didn't know about 50 [points]," Burke said. "But I knew nobody could stop our offense right now."

Killian rushed for 180 yards in his first full game back, while Jordan passed for 222 and ran for 109 to continue his second-half surge. After some struggles at the season's start, Jordan has completed 74 percent of his passes for 666 yards in the last three playoff games.

With 11 consecutive wins, the Conquerors are now within reach of their eighth FHSAA title, a total exceeded only by Bolles (11), St. Thomas Aquinas (11) and University Christian (nine entering Wednesday afternoon's Class 2A final).

"I want to be on that wall [listing Trinity's champions]," offensive lineman Austin Barber said. "There's not a lot of guys that go on that wall, and I want to be a part of that."

On Wednesday, there's a three-time defending champion standing in their path.

Trinity and Chaminade have combined to win each of the last seven titles in Class 3A — the Conquerors took four in a row from 2013 to 2016, then Chaminade-Madonna launched its own state streak beginning in 2017.

"All the work has paid off," Ellis said. "We know that we've made it, and now we're just trying to finish the mission, get the win and come back home and celebrate."


Trinity Christian (11-1) vs. Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna (8-1)

7 p.m. Wednesday

Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee

Glance: Dynasties collide, the Class 3A powers of the mid-2010s and the end of the decade. These teams have combined for the last seven state championships at the classification. Chaminade's only loss this season was a 7-3 defeat on Sept. 18 to Plantation American Heritage, the same team that Trinity topped 3-0 in Broward County a month later. However, the Lions' Miami-committed rushing star, Thad Franklin (91 carries, 795 yards, four TDs), hasn't played since injuring a hamstring in the regional semifinal. Even without Franklin, though, Chaminade beat Berkeley Prep in the state semis behind a 269-yard ground attack sparked by freshman Davion Gause. Quarterback Jaylon Tolbert has completed 88 of 131 passes for 1,179 yards for 1,179 yards, with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. Trinity's defense is quick and sure-tackling, superb in a secondary with multiple future FBS players. For Trinity, the big question may be whether they can win the battle in the trenches, which they didn't in their lone loss to Bolles in September. The Conquerors must watch out for Chaminade edge rusher Jamaal Johnson and 305-pound defensive tackle Allan Haye, who have both committed to Miami and combine for 19 sacks thus far this year. Super 11 left tackle Austin Barber handles that assignment of protecting the blind side of quarterback Ja'Cory Jordan. Though Treyaun Webb has gone in and out of the lineup, the return of Kaleb Killian and Marcus Burke brings renewed punch to the Conquerors' offense, and it showed last time out with 56 points in Ocala.