High school football: Osceola's defense dominates Vero Beach in region final

VERO BEACH — Vero Beach knew it would have its hands full with a short-handed offense against an Osceola defense featuring four seniors who have committed to Power Five programs.

Unfortunately for the Fighting Indians, the Kowboys' defense proved to be too much.

Osceola had four takeaways, including a third-quarter pick-six by Florida commit Ja'Keem Jackson, and dominated Vero Beach 31-7 Friday night to win the Region 3-4S championship at the Citrus Bowl.

"We just really struggled offensively," Vero Beach coach Lenny Jankowski said. "We knew they had a great defense and I think what's most impressive is we made a habit of making big plays this season and we just weren't able to do any of that. Credit to them, they have great players who are really well coached, and I think that was the difference."

Recent: Keys to watch for the three Treasure Coast teams searching for Final Four berths

Recent local football: Jensen Beach tight end Ryland Hauser creating own legacy

Vero Beach (11-2) trailed 10-7 at the half and the Kowboys (10-3) took control in the third quarter.

Sophomore running back Taevion Swint took a third-down screen pass from David Buggs 19 yards for a score to give the Kowboys a 17-7 lead. It was the second touchdown of the game for Swint, who also scored on a 38-yard run on the second play from scrimmage.

That set the stage for Jackson.

First, he recovered a fumble on the ensuing Vero Beach drive. Then, after the Osceola drive stalled, he stepped in front of a pass and returned it 64 yards untouched to essentially put the game out of reach.

"Their quarterback was limited," Osceola coach Eric Pinellas said of Vero Beach's Jake Whiteley. "His arm strength isn't like their starter (SMU commit Tyler Aronson), who was out. ... Can't let him set his feet or anything like that. We didn't let him get comfortable. We knew we were going to get one. Once we got one, we felt like we could go to the house with it and that's exactly what happened."

Buggs, who finished the game 11-of-21 for 187 yards, capped the scoring with a 67-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Bo Mascoe down the sideline in the fourth quarter.

Swint, one of the top sophomore running backs in the nation, had 25 carries for 189 yards and a touchdown and also caught two passes for 34 yards.

"I think he's really good," Jankowski said. "He's really good on film; he's really good in person. He's tough, he runs hard. He's as advertised."

With Aronson still nursing a thumb injury suffered against Martin County in Week 9 and leading rusher Quincy Rodgers unable to play, Vero Beach primarily leaned on freshman quarterback EJ White to make plays.

White completed 9-of-16 passes for 27 yards and a touchdown to Florida State commit Vandrevius Jacobs in the second quarter. White also rushed 12 times for 25 yards. Vero Beach did not hand the ball off to a running back until there were less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Whiteley was 6-of-12 for 71 yards and also rushed for 29 yards. His 21-yard scamper to the Osceola 10-yard line in the second quarter led to Jacobs' touchdown catch.

"We figured that it's going to be a defensive struggle and a defensive battle," Jankowski said. "I thought we were doing OK just taking care of the football and trying to play some field position. ... I've got to do a better job of helping (White) in situations like that. I thought he played really hard and gave max effort, it just wasn't there."

Jacobs finished the game with eight catches for 51 yards and a score. He also broke up three passes in the first half on defense.

Osceola will travel Friday to top-seeded Lakeland for the state semifinals.

This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: High school football: Osceola's defense dominates Vero in Region 3-4S final