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Battle-tested Jefferson hopes brutal schedule leads to brighter days ahead

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Thu. October 11, 2012 | Joel Anderson

Battle-tested Jefferson hopes brutal schedule leads to brighter days ahead

Halftime was seconds away and Jefferson was doing the unthinkable: leading top-ranked Armwood 21-0 through 23-plus minutes of play.

No gimmicks, no trick plays, and no lucky bounces. The Dragons were simply taking control with an efficient offense and a disciplined defense.

“We were proving everybody wrong,” defensive back Keivanta Turk said. “We felt like we were on top of the world.”

For the Dragons, the tumble was swift and hard.

Armwood’s Austin Gallon made a diving 34-yard touchdown reception as time expired in the first half, setting into motion a run of 35 unanswered points that ultimately doomed Jefferson.

It would have seemed like an abnormal series of events if Jefferson hadn’t surrendered another 21-point lead last week, this time against Hillsborough in a 36-28 loss.

The challenge now for the Dragons (1-4) is shaking off the disappointment of those consecutive collapses and harnessing their first-half mastery for a full 48 minutes. Jefferson will attempt to rebound Friday in a Class 6A-8 district matchup against King (2-4).

“I’ve talked about being an angry football team,” coach Jeremy Earle told his team at practice earlier this week. “We need to understand what we let slip away.”

Earle has worked to rebuild his team’s confidence after those crushing losses, which were all part of one of the toughest five-game stretches in the county. Jefferson’s four defeats have come to opponents — Robinson, Plant, Armwood and Hillsborough — that are a combined 19-2 this season.

“The way our schedule lined up, we didn’t have a lot of time to ease into the season,” Earle said. “This will hopefully make everyone stronger. Losing brings out the worst in everybody.”

Earle has since tinkered with his lineups and run off a handful of reserves that “weren’t committed enough.” He declined to give their names.

The Dragons are in their second year of rebuilding after losing 20 of 22 starters from the 2010 Class 3A championship team. Earle, the offensive coordinator for the title team, inherited a depleted roster that was unprepared for the move to Class 6A and a schedule that included an Ohio powerhouse.

Their schedule this season is basically the same as last year’s, though they replaced St. Edward of Lakewood, Ohio, for Plant.  And much like 2011, the Dragons have emerged from that slate of games with only a narrow win over Newsome.

But Jefferson can find promise in the way last year’s team closed the season:  a five-game win streak by a combined score of 225-42.

Additionally, the Dragons’ improvement is obvious despite the similar record. Starting with that 21-point lead at Armwood.

Outside of the visitor’s locker room at Lyle Flagg Stadium, few could have predicted the way it would happen. The Dragons scored three touchdowns on a defense that had held three of its first four opponents scoreless and pitched a shutout against an offense that was averaging 40 points a game.

“We weren’t scared,” senior running back Shaquille Speights said. “We put up some points on a team that was supposed to be No. 1.”

Turk said the team remains convinced it can play with — and eventually beat — the top programs in 6A. The confidence spills over into their belief that there’s still a chance — albeit a slim one — that they can still make the playoffs.

“We still want to go hard and reach all of our goals,” said Turk, who started on the 2010 state championship team. “We can beat those top-ranked elite teams.”

At least for a half.

Joel Anderson can be reached at janderson@tampabay.com or on Twitter at jdhometeam.

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