THE APOPKA BLUE DARTERS ENDURED A THREE- game losing streak last October, a stretch that would have derailed even the strongest teams. But those teams likely don’t have the same perspective that
coach Rick Darlington instills in his players.
Relying on that perspective, something they learned in
part on visits to an orphanage in the Bahamas, the Blue
Darters didn’t panic and overcame that ominous October
stretch. They went on to win the state championship, the
Blue Darters’ third under Darlington.
“I’d rather win in November and December than October,”
Darlington said with a chuckle.
Heading into his 14th season at Apopka, Darlington looks
back fondly on his tenure. He’s coached two of his seven
children. Sons Ty and Zack have gone on to play college football. Ty is a center at Oklahoma and Zack is a quarterback
at Nebraska. But it was a hug and a Father’s Day wish from
one of the orphans in the Bahamas that stands out when he
thinks about his program’s perspective.
“As we were leaving the orphanage, this little kid came
running up to me and grabbed me and says, ‘Happy Father’s
Day,’” Darlington recalled. “Talk about breaking your heart.
It just changes you. We think we have it bad sometimes, and
we don’t even know. It really makes you realize that’s it’s not
that big of a deal if your PlayStation isn’t working or you don’t
Or if you lose three games in October.
“We’ve had a good amount of success on the field,”
Darlington said. “But I think that a lot of that success on the
field comes from the things that we do off the field. The way
we work in our offseason program; the way we try to develop
men of honor and character that play for the right reasons.
“We focus a lot more on the intangible than we do on the
actual measurables of the game,” he added, “and I think
that’s really helped us, especially come playoff time. We
went into the playoffs last year having lost three games in
October. Then, we ended up winning the state championship.
That was a reflection of the kids knowing how to deal with
adversity, knowing how to believe in each other and to not
lose hope when things looked dark in October, because they
PORT ST. JOE
IT WAS QUITE THE HOMECOMING. AFTER A FIVE- year absence, coach John Palmer returned to Port St. Joe High School in 2014 and promptly led the Tiger Sharks to the state championship. It was the second
state title for Palmer at Port St. Joe, and just like his first in
2005, defense was the catalyst.
Palmer had teamed with defensive coordinator Matt
Gannon to produce elite defenses in the past. In 2003, the
Sharks won a game 2-0 that clinched a region championship.
In 2005, on their way to the state title, they beat a team 3-2
in the playoffs. But the 2014 Port St. Joe defense might have
been the best of the bunch.
“Our kids have a way of stepping up when playoff time
gets here,” coach Palmer said. “Since I’ve been around Port
St. Joe, it seems like our kids play their best football at the
It also seems like good coaching. Featuring fast, quick and
slightly undersized personnel, the Sharks shut out seven
opponents, including their last three in the playoffs. Port St. Joe
gave up an early touchdown – the result of a muffed punt at its
own 14-yard line – to district champion South Walton in the first
round. South Walton then scored a garbage-time touchdown
with two minutes to play in Port St. Joe’s 37-14 victory. The
Sharks didn’t surrender another point the rest of the playoffs.
On the season, Port St. Joe allowed just 8. 33 points per game.
It was a perfect ending to the first season of Palmer’s second
stint at Port St. Joe, a place rich in championship tradition.
“The school and the community here have a tremendous
Palmer called on that past legacy to help motivate the
love for athletics,” Palmer said this spring. “We have 27
state championships in football, basketball, baseball, track,
weight-lifting and cross country. We have an athletic-minded
community that really supports these kids.”
Some of that championship pedigree is still making an
impact at Port St. Joe. In fact, every team and player that has
reached a state championship is immortalized with a four-by-six
foot picture that hangs on the walls of the Sharks’ gymnasium.
2014 Sharks during their playoff run. He brought back Ashlyn
Parker, a member of the 2005 championship team, to talk to
the players before the playoff opener against South Walton.
“Ash’s point was simple,” Palmer recalled. “He asked the
team, ‘What will your legacy be? Mine is on the wall. Now, it’s
your turn to leave your legacy.’”
Palmer’s Sharks did just that.
Rich Darlington’s offseason preparations paid large dividends for Apopka in 2014.
John Palmer and his coaching staff delivered a state title to Port St. Joe in 2014.
BY DAVID PURDUM