Miami-Dade High Schools

Coral Gables aims for a repeat

Jontavis Testa, the latest in a long line of standout Coral Gables High linebackers, wants teams to explore quickly how good this year’s Cavalier defense really is.

“We’re really looking forward to playing teams that tested us last year and showed our weaknesses,” Testa said. “I want to play teams that can challenge us through the air and threaten our secondary. Our defense is really going to break people physically in the second half of games.”

Maybe it was a subtle hint when Testa mentioned passing teams.

Columbus returns five starters from a potent offense that averaged 27 points per game last season, including senior quarterback Tucker Beirne (6-2, 220), who had a strong spring according to coach Chris Merritt. Three starting offensive linemen return as well as senior receivers Austin Maloney and Xavier Williams.

Even when they aren’t mentioning each other by name, it’s obvious who Gables and district rival Columbus have circled on their respective calendars as a must-win game this season.

Each side made brash predictions at this past Saturday’s Miami Dolphins High School Football Media Day, when asked who would win the duel for the district title.

Last season, Columbus watched Gables rally in the second half of both the regular-season meeting and a wild second-round playoff that was played over two days because of inclement weather.

Coral Gables needs that defense that allowed only 10.4 points per game last season to perform as good or better if it is to repeat as District 14-8A champions.

The Cavaliers (11-2 last season) have their sights set on a bigger prize this season, hoping to win the school’s first state title since 1968.

If they are to make a run similar to South Dade’s last year, they will need big seasons from Testa (6-0, 210) and fellow star linebacker Emilio Gibbs, as they lead a unit that returns eight starters. Testa was the second-leading tackler in Dade (126 tackles), and defensive end Shakur Cooper finished with 14 sacks.

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• Team to beat: Coral Gables. The Cavaliers trudged through the pouring rain to a scoreless stalemate for nearly four quarters against South Dade in last year’s Region 4-8A final. A touchdown in the closing seconds still haunts the Cavaliers, who later watched South Dade make history and win its first state title.

With South Dade hit hard by graduation, Gables feels it is in the same position this season and primed to improve upon an 11-2 season that was its best since 1969.

• New face: Steve Smith, Coral Park. After a couple of seasons at Doral Academy, Smith — a veteran coach in Miami-Dade County — takes over a team that has gone 10-49 over the past six years.

Within that dismal output, however, was a 5-5 record in 2010 while Smith was on staff as an assistant coach.

He faces a tough challenge trying to push the Rams to the postseason for what would be the first time since 1998.

• Biggest game: Coral Gables vs. Columbus, Sept. 12, Tropical Park.

• Predicted order of finish: 1. Coral Gables; 2. Columbus; 3. Miami Beach; 4. South Miami; 5. Miami High; 6. Coral Park.

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