BRANDON — On the surface, it doesn’t look like much has changed.
The Eagles still wear the same numberless white and maroon mesh practice jerseys, save for the quarterbacks in blue. They still walk out from their unassuming locker room and pass under the shade of a few trees before stepping onto their practice field before 4 p.m. And they still break out into individual drills after a series of routine stretches.
But while the process remain the same, the results have become increasingly surprising.
After starting out 1-3, a 34-0 shutout of Newsome on Oct. 6 raised a few eyebrows and kept Brandon lurking in the Class 7A, District 8 race. Two weeks later, a 48-36 upset of previously undefeated Plant City, a team that had already been penciled in to play into December, launched Brandon into a three-way tie atop the district.
Now the Eagles (4-4, 3-1) control their own destiny and must beat East Bay (3-5, 1-3) on Friday before worrying about whether a tiebreaker with Plant City and Durant looms on Monday’s horizon.
So, what’s been the difference for the Eagles? It’s just been incremental improvements in the passing game and defense that have come day-by-day.
“We don’t vary a whole lot,” Brandon coach John Lima said. “We do the same things in practice, and we focus on trying to get a little bit better each day. If you add that up over time, they start to play a lot better, and we’re seeing that from a lot of guys.”
The Eagles’ defense only returned four starters from a 9-2 playoff squad a year ago. And while it’s hard to look at Brandon’s schedule and see when the unit started to elevate its collective game (matchups against Armwood and Plant will do that to anyone), the defense has certainly been the difference in the Eagles’ two biggest wins.
Against Newsome, the defensive line played its best game of the season, according to Lima. The run-first Wolves were held to only 174 yards on the ground and were shutout for the first time since 2008. And with a 35-0 lead midway through the third quarter against a Dazmond Patterson-less Plant City, the Eagles starting subbing out the starters. Those moves were, of course, reversed as quarterback Bennie Coney started to find his groove and pulled his team back to within striking distance.
“It was the most frustrating big win we’ve ever head,” Lima said.
While the first-team defense was dominant early against the Raiders, Brandon quarterback Alan Knippel never missed a beat the entire game. Knippel finished a perfect 11-for-11 for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Not bad for a quarterback who has had three games this season in which he has been given less than 10 passing attempts.
“He’s always been a good arm,” Lima said. “Now he’s finally understanding the little things about being a quarterback, making decisions with the ball, paying attention to the situation, the down and distance, and guys are making adjustments within the plays and he’s reading those. He’s just playing at a really high level right now.”
“Hopefully if we do win districts or get district runner-up, we can establish the pass game a little bit more than 11 passes,” Knippel added.
Knippel said he feels his team is peaking at the right time and only wishes it had happened sooner.
“I wish it would have started at the beginning of the season, so that way, like, the Durant game, we could’ve won,” he said. “We could win that now playing them. I have a lot of confidence in my team, and I can’t complain because we are winning games.”
Before the Eagles get that second crack at Durant (which could opt to rest their skill players against Riverview to ensure they’re at full strength for Monday), they must first get through East Bay, a team that was tied with Plant City late in the fourth quarter and only down to Durant by three points in the third. Brandon, though, is still taking it day-by-day.
“We’ve got to win Friday,” said starting running back Tyrell Garner, “and then worry about Monday.”