Miami Central (Fla.) coach Telly Lockette has been on the opposite side of a crosstown rivalry with defending national champion Northwestern for nearly a decade.
But now he finds himself in position to lock up the 6A-District 13 title against his former team Friday.
Lockette played running back at Northwestern. He graduated in 1993, and spent six years as offensive coordinator for the Bulls. This is his first season at Central (5-3).
"It's very important, and it's very emotional," Lockette said. "It's going to be a good game on both sides of the ball. They have a job to do as well as I have a job to do. Just to get in the mix again, it's going to be very emotional."
Lockette helped Northwestern win a title in 2006, but was one of several coaches fired before the 2007 season because of their alleged involvement in a sex scandal the previous year.
He later was cleared to coach again in Dade County and accepted the job at Central last spring.
"I am so elated to be back coaching and to be on a stage where I am playing my alma mater for a district championship," Lockette said.
"There couldn't have been a better script."
Especially given the rivalry between the schools, separated by just 2.1 miles. Most of the players grew up together, attending the same elementary or middle school. It has been a big rivalry since before Lockette was a student.
Unranked Central has been on the losing side the last four meetings and faces another tall order.
Northwestern (7-1), ranked 45th in the RivalsHigh 100, has won 37 consecutive games counted by the Florida High School Athletic Association. Its only loss this season came in a preseason game against Long Beach Poly (Calif.), which the FHSAA does not recognize.
"We are going into the game just trying to do the same little things we have been doing, and hopefully by the time we do all those little things we come out victorious," Lockette said. "I don't have my kids worrying about streaks or anything like that, we are just coming in, being humble and playing football."
The Rockets rebounded from an 0-3 start - in which they lost by a combined eight points - and are playing their best football when it matters most. They are 4-0 in the district, while the Bulls are 3-0 with one more to go after this week. The top two teams in the district make the playoffs.
Lockette said the turnaround was a result of ironing out mental mistakes as the coaching staff and players got acclimated. However, the change was most notable on defense. The Rockets gave up 79 points combined through the first three games, but since have recorded five shutouts and surrendered just 13 points.
Junior linebacker Derrick Dansby, who ranks first in Dade County in tackles with 84, and senior defensive end Kevin Pomphile, who has seven sacks, are two key players on the defense – which runs a 4-3 scheme.
"Before, our defensive guys were doing a lot of thinking and playing football," Lockette said. "Now they are lining up and just playing football and using their ability. We have a lot of young talent that is doing a good job. They are stepping up and making things happen for us."
The Bulls' run-oriented, Wing-T offense could be a handful, though. Northwestern has outscored opponents 234-61.
Senior Daquan Hargrett, who committed to West Virginia, junior Corvin Lamb and senior Tyresse Jones provide a potent running attack by committee. Lockette calls them three of the most explosive players in Florida.
Hargrett has broken out in recent games to push his rushing total to 609 yards on 63 carries with nine touchdowns.
"I have never seen an offensive backfield that fast," Lockette said. "We are going to have to do a good job trying to contain them. ...
We've got to keep them inside and not let them get outside. If they get outside, there's not too many guys that can stop them."
Central's high-powered spread offense has improved along with the health of the offensive line, which suffered injuries early in the season.
Junior running back Brandon Gainer leads Miami-Dade County with 1,035 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns on 109 carries. Quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey ranks third in passing with 1,307 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Northwestern's defense is most sound in the secondary. The unit is led by Division-I prospects such as senior three-star safety Tevin McCaskill and junior cornerback Khalid Marshall.
Lockette said although the Bulls appear to be the more-proven team, the Rockets will match up well against them - as long as they stay focused.
"We've got to play within the whistles and just be disciplined," Lockette said. "We have to stay away from penalties, stay away from the flags and just play good football."
Game of the Week: Miami Central Rockets vs Miami Northwestern Bulls
KEY TO THE GAME: Miami Central Rockets
Central's defense won't be able to key in on one player. Northwestern's offense revolves around three main running backs - Daquan Hargrett, Corvin Lamb and Tyresse Jones. However, if the Rockets can keep them from getting to the outside, they may be able to contain the Bulls. They also need to keep the ball away from Lamb on kick returns. He has returned a kickoff for a touchdown in five consecutive games.
KEY TO THE GAME: Miami Northwestern Bulls
The defense that holds up the longest could determine the winner of this game. The Bulls have only faced an attack like Central's high-powered spread offense once this regular season, and that was the one game they almost lost - a 31-29 win over Booker T. Washington. The Bulls will be watching out for Central running back Brandon Gainer and quarterback Jeffrey Godfrey, who power the Rockets' attack.
Note: Switching teams
Central coach Telly Lockette and three of his assistants - offensive coordinator Chris Perkins, junior varsity coach Robert Terry and offensive line coach Luis Cardona - are former Northwestern coaches who were part of the Bulls' 2006 state title. They laid the foundation for another title in 2007, which Northwestern won 41-0 over Boone, though the four coaches were no longer on staff.