freier

Citrus’ Nick Freier finds room to run between the sideline and Central backer Lovenel Chery Friday night in Inverness. The Hurricanes beat the Bears 55-6.

INVERNESS — The Citrus High players gleefully skidded across the wet field like it was a slip and slide. They gathered around for team photos. They smiled and laughed and enjoyed the moment.

It was the end of the season for the Hurricanes, a season that saw them start off 0-4 with three shutouts before having to deal with unimaginable tragedy when their teammate Antonio Hicks died at a practice in late September.

But on Friday night at the Citrus Bowl, they could celebrate. They had just cruised to their third win in their final four games, blowing out winless Central, 55-6.

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“It just brings joy to my heart,” Citrus head coach McKinley Franklin said. “I’m a Hurricane myself and I remember my last day playing on this field. I know what is was like, and these guys deserve joy right now. They deserve to have joy in their heart and just love for each other right now.”

The Bears (0-10) came in overmatched and undermanned — they only had nine reserves in uniform on their sideline — and extended a now 23-game losing streak that dates back to early 2019. The ’Canes (3-7) took advantage of the opportunity behind the trio of Colton McNeely, Cason Williamson and Nick Freier.

“The kids played fundamental football, they played well. They did their jobs,” Franklin said. “The offensive line opened up holes and they did what they were supposed to do.”

It was Trenton Slanker who punctuated the game’s opening drive with a 1-yard dive up the middle for a touchdown. That preceded a pair of rushing scores for the quarterback Williamson, who finished with exactly 100 yard on nine carries.

He had a 5-yard touchdown at 8:59 in the second quarter, faking a handoff and jogging into the end zone. With 2:25 to go in the half the junior signal caller made it 21-0 on a 20-yard scamper.

“It feels great to go out with all the boys I’ve been playing with since I first stepped on this field,” Williamson said. “Everyone’s that blocking for me, I appreciate every single one of them, love every single one of them. All credit’s to them.”

Freier, who totaled 87 yards on just seven rushes, took a pitch from Williamson and ran seven yards to pay dirt to push to lead to 28-0 at 9:37 in the third quarter. The senior tacked on a 10-yard touchdown run in the closing seconds of the fourth.

Central got the scoreboard with a 30-yard touchdown pass from Evan Spears to Keyshawn Simmons midway through the third. Then McNeely had scoring runs of 20 and 26 yards, sandwiching an 18-yard Williamson touchdown toss to Jabin Black that initiated a running clock with the score 42-6 at the end of the third quarter.

The sophomore McNeely, in a battle with Lecanto’s Luke Malmberg for the county’s rushing title, ended up with 170 yards on 17 carries.

“We wanted to get the win for the seniors so they could go out with a good time,” McNeely said. “It (the county rushing title) is in my head, but more importantly I’m here for the team.”

The progress of McNeely and Williamson provides a solid foundation the ’Canes can look forward to building on next season. But it will be difficult to forget this one, especially as players and coaches remember Hicks.

“It’s definitely been a rough one, but he’s been with us this whole ride,” Williamson said. “Even though he’s gone, he’s still with us. We all know that.”

Franklin, a man of great faith and optimism, expressed great pride in how his players have handled adversity beyond what most high school students would ever endure.

“We serve a God that’s bigger than anything that we’ll ever face,” Franklin said. “Although during the time you don’t see the victory in it; sometimes you won’t see the victory in it. Sometimes it’s not for us to see right then.

“But as you look around out here tonight, you see the victory in these guys. How they’ve come together as a team and how they’ve just embraced the suck. Because what we went through did suck. They’ve embraced the suck, they’ve gotten better each week, and it’s the grace of God that these guys are where they’re at right now.”

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Get updates and player profiles ahead of Friday's high school games, plus a recap Saturday with stories, photos, video Frequency: Seasonal Twice a week

Contact Chronicle sports reporter Chris Bernhardt at 352-563-5660, chris.bernhardt@chronicleonline.com or on twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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