Ritchey, Underwood race past the competition


Bell High School senior Austin Ritchey, 18, left, and Columbia High School junior Lonnie Underwood, 17, right, are the Sun's football players of the year. (Erica Brough/Correspondent)

Published: Wednesday, December 25, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 at 6:49 p.m.

When Bell's Austin Ritchey or Columbia's Lonnie Underwood lined up in the backfield on Friday nights this season, they certainly drew a lot of attention from opposing defenses.

Despite opponents geared to stop them, Ritchey ran for a school-record 2,215 yards while Underwood gained 1,746 yards and scored a school-record 36 touchdowns.

Ritchey led the Bulldogs to their first-ever state playoff berth while Underwood surprised his coach, who after the 2012 season didn't know who was going to step in for Ronald Timmons, who ran for a school record the year before.

Now, with Underwood just a junior, coach Brian Allen can't wait until next season.

“He is definitely our most valuable player,” Allen said. “Going through the season, he was a special kid who gave his body 100 percent and never complained. He went in every day and did his best to contribute whatever we asked of him.”

Underwood opened the season with 197 yards and three touchdowns in a dominating 49-7 win over Gainesville, then ran for 192 yards and four TDs in knocking off Lincoln in Tallahassee, 28-14.

“He has an incredible ability to make every cut,” Allen said. “He is quick on his feet and can get into gaps and see daylight with his vision.”

Underwood said he knew after last season's playoff loss at Navarre, he needed to make a commitment to the weight room to prepare for the 2013 season.

“I wanted to get bigger and stronger so next year I could take us to the state championship,” he said.

The Tigers (10-2) fell at home to St. Johns Bartram Trail, 29-24, in the Class 6A regional semifinals. Underwood missed three games this season following a hip flexor injury early in a district loss at Jacksonville Ed White.

“I did pretty good, but I feel I could have done better,” said the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Underwood. “(Bartram Trail) was a team we could have beaten, but we missed on opportunities and made mistakes. As a senior next year, I want us to be state champions.”

Allen said, surprisingly, not many colleges have inquired about Underwood, but the running back downplays it. “I haven't really been thinking about it,” he said. “It will happen eventually.”

Bell was the only school in the area that hadn't reached the state playoffs in football before this season, when the Bulldogs, behind an outstanding senior season from Ritchey, went 8-3 and earned a playoff trip to Hamilton County. They lost 39-24, but Ritchey ran for 177 yards and three TDs.

“It was definitely special this season, I really can't explain it,” said the 6-1, 215-pound Ritchey. “I got to play with my little brother in my last year, got to play with a great group of guys and behind an awesome offensive line.”

In order to reach the playoffs, Bell beat Hilliard, 52-28, at home and clinched a postseason berth with a 52-14 win at Hawthorne.

“To be able to do what he did when pretty much everyone geared up to stop him is pretty impressive,” said Bulldogs first year coach Joey Whittington. “Getting to the playoffs was very important to Austin and the whole senior class. Austin knew a lot of it was going to run through him.”

Ritchey, who scored 23 TDs, had five games in which he rushed for more than 250 yards, three more than 300 yards with a season-best of 350 in a 52-43 shootout against Bronson.

The only team that kept him under 100 yards (65) was 1A state champion Trenton, which beat Bell by 50 points.

“When we got beat that bad, we all got together and coach told us that he didn't want it to happen again,” Ritchey recalls. “We felt really bad about it, and weren't going to let it happen again.”

Currently, the only college that has shown interest in the Bulldog is Ave Maria near Naples. Ritchey is hoping for more interest, but did take a visit south to Ave Maria. “I love the school,” he said. “It is nice down there.”

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