ORLANDO — For one half, everything worked according to plan for Clearwater Central Catholic. The defense was stifling, the offense was mistake free, the kicking game was exceptional.
There was no score at halftime of Saturday’s Class 3A state championship game, and that suited the Marauders just fine. CCC had thrived on low-scoring affairs during its exhilarating run through the postseason.
But any hope the Marauders had of beating state power Jacksonville Trinity Christian and winning Pinellas County’s first state title vanished in the second half.
The Conquerors scored 27 points in the third quarter, the most CCC had given up in a game this season. That was more than enough for Trinity Christian to cruise to a 34-7 win and its fourth state title.
“If there was anything that could go wrong, it did in the third quarter,” said Marauders coach John Davis.
The Marauders (11-3) were not themselves in the second half, committing a flurry of uncharacteristic mistakes. They started 44 seconds into the third quarter on defensive lapse that allowed Trinity Christian’s Isaiah Ford to turn the corner and race 58 yards for a touchdown to give the Conquerors a 7-0 lead.
On CCC’s next possession, quarterback Jeff Smith threw an interception. One play later, Trinity Christian converted that turnover into points as Jaquez Riles threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Chris Barr to make it 14-0.
Needing a spark, the Marauders decided to go for it on fourth down on their next possession. Smith rolled and threw to Brandon Junk but the pass was high. Junk bobbled it before it fell incomplete. Trinity Christian (12-1) needed just 56 seconds to score, this time Ford on a 4-yard run.
The Marauders showed some life on offense on their next possession but Smith lost the ball after he was scrambling to the outside. Deontai Williams returned the fumble 63 yards for a touchdown to put Trinity Christian ahead 27-0.
“We felt like we moved the ball well, but we just couldn’t finish things,” Smith said. “We just came out in the second half real soft, and had a lot of stupid plays. I know I made some stupid decisions.”
Trinity Christian had a massive defensive line and ultra-fast linebackers who made it difficult to run the ball. CCC knew it and relied on Smith to make plays with his arm and his feet.
Smith showed flashes of brilliance, rushing for a team-high 102 yards, most coming late in the second half. He also was 19-of-34 for 143 yards. But he threw four interceptions in the second half, two coming inside Trinity Christian’s 20-yard line.
“We couldn’t run the ball, and we had to put a lot on Jeff’s shoulders,” Davis said. “That’s a lot to ask for a quarterback who is a junior and became a full-time starter halfway through the year. But I’ll say this: he has a bright future ahead of him.”
In the fourth quarter, CCC scored on a 2-yard run by Conner Dorris to cut it to 27-7. The touchdown was significant because it was the first time a Pinellas County team has scored in a state championship game in 27 years.
“It was a little rough out there in the second half,” Dorris said. “I thought we played well defensively, we just lost a little bit of energy. And there were too many mistakes to overcome.”
Trinity Christian’s Jalin Buie ran 58 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to round out the scoring.
This was the first time the Marauders had advanced to the state final and the first championship appearance for Davis after 20 years as a head coach.
“The final destination isn’t the end all, be all,” Davis said. “I’ll remember the road to get there as much as anything. This loss doesn’t define these kids. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.