Rivalries loom large in final weeks of high school football

OKEECHOBEE — As the final football games of the 2018 regular season approach and many teams vie for their spot in the playoffs, two games around Lake Okeechobee will be played that have no playoff implications whatsoever, yet they could not be more important to the four teams involved.

Okeechobee scores a touchdown in the second half against the Clewiston Tigers in 2017. The Brahmans would go on to win that game 20-16. Photo by Richard Marion.

The Okeechobee Brahmans will take on the Clewiston Tigers on Nov. 2 in one of the longest running rivalries in south Florida. The Pahokee Blue Devils will face the Glades Central Raiders in the legendary Muck Bowl on Nov. 2 as well.

Okeechobee and Clewiston have played each other 66 times since 1944, which is the second most games between two teams in the area only behind Vero Beach and Martin County. Historically, the rivalry has been one sided, with Clewiston winning 51 of the 66 games. But beginning in 2007 the series became a bit more even with Okeechobee winning five of the eleven games from 2007 to 2017.

Now, in 2018, with the Brahmans at 0-9 and the Tigers at 1-8, both teams find themselves out of the playoff hunt. Yet for a rivalry as old as Okeechobee and Clewiston, sometimes beating the other team in the final game of the year can mean more than all the other games combined.

Last year, in what would be Okeechobee head coach Chris Branham’s last game, the Brahmans rallied back to defeat Clewiston 20-16 in a thriller. The victory let the Brahmans end 2017 on a high note after what had been a somewhat tumultuous season.

After the win over Clewiston, Branham talked about the rivalry with the Tigers and his own experience with it as a player at Okeechobee High School.

“For me, growing up in Okeechobee, Clewiston was always the bully,” explained Branham.

“They were great every year, always had winning seasons. We’ve talked about the history of the rivalry to our kids. Clewiston doesn’t even look at us as their rival. They just see it as another game around the lake. When I was playing football here when I was younger, I remember old timers coming up to me and saying, ‘Are we going to beat Clewiston this year,’ that was from guys who were in their 60s asking that same question. For us to win that game is a big thing. To be able to say that at the end of the day, no matter how the season looked, in the last game we stood firm and beat Clewiston.”

Clewiston head coach Brad Garret says that he knows that no matter what either team’s record is, when the Tigers play the Brahmans it’s always a hard fought game.

“These last two years Okeechobee has had a really good football team and they’ve came down to Clewiston and won,” said Garret. “They’ve been very well coached and their kids play hard, and I know they’re going to be up for this game. I think our football team has been through a lot this year. We’re a group that’s still hungry. We aren’t going to look past anybody. We know the situation they are in and they know the situation we’re in.

We’re looking to end this season on a good note and these kids deserve it.”

Similar to Branham in 2017, this will be Garret’s last game as head coach of the Clewiston Tigers. Longtime Tigers coach Pete Walker will make a return to the sidelines to coach Clewiston for the 2019 season. Garret is well liked by the players on the Clewiston team and you have to imagine they’d like nothing more than to send him out on top with a big win over an Okeechobee team that has struggled so far this season.

Two teams that haven’t struggled this season are the Pahokee Blue Devils and the Glades Central Raiders.

Both teams are in the mix for the playoffs this year and have squared off against some of the best teams in the state. But none of those other games will matter as much to either team as the 2018 Muck Bowl.

Starting in the 1980s, the Muck Bowl rivalry can seem relatively new compared to Okeechobee and Clewiston’s which dates back to the 1940s. But nothing comes close to the intensity found at the Muck Bowl. There have been four times where the loser of the Muck Bowl went on to win a state championship. If you were to ask the players on either team which would be more important, a state championship or a win in the Muck Bowl, it might be a toss-up.

The 2007 Muck Bowl, regarded by many to be the best game played in the rivalry, drew the attention of many in the national media including Sports Illustrated, ESPN and NFL Films. Both teams entered that game at a perfect 9-0, both teams were defending state champions and both teams had future NFL stars on their rosters, including Glades Central wide receiver Travis Benjamin and Pahokee cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Pahokee would go on to win 34-24 that year.

Pahokee comes into the game with a 5-5 record this year, but don’t let that mislead you on their talent level. The Blue Devils have had one of the toughest schedules in the state this year and have been competitive in all of their games. Pahokee has dropped the last two games however, losing 21-20 to Seminole Ridge and 35-14 to Cocoa.

Glades Central on the other hand comes in on a three-win streak to increase their record to 5-3, and you can bet the Raiders are ready to take down Pahokee after the Blue Devils won the past two Muck Bowls in 2016 and 2017.

Okeechobee will play Clewiston at 7 p.m. at Okeechobee High School on Nov. 2. Pahokee will face Glades Central at 5 p.m. at Pahokee High School on Nov. 2.

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