WESLEY CHAPEL — Wiregrass Ranch football coach Mike Lawrence’s first inclination is to call Friday night’s season finale against just-up-the-road Wesley Chapel just another game.
But even as he says the words, it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t believe them.
A few seconds later, he is grinning widely.
“It’s a big game,” he says. “You know it. And you’re going to write it that way.”
Right. And Coach, you banned your kids from Twitter this week, which in today’s modern world of social media practically defines big game.
Except, you know what? It’s bigger than a big game.
A big game is everyone’s last game. A big game is a playoff game.
This is bigger than both of those, combined.
It’s ginormous and humongous and monstrous.
No matter who wins, it will be tremendous.
Yes, I understand that it is preached that the postseason is the pinnacle, and I’m here to tell you that can be overrated, especially for a program like Wiregrass Ranch.
The Bulls aren’t ready for the playoffs as, say, a 5-5 or 6-4 team. They have just begun a turnaround under Lawrence after two horrendous seasons, and they have juniors and seniors who have suffered.
Right now, the Bulls don’t need any old playoff game, a loss to bow out on.
They need something better.
They need Wesley Chapel.
“A win is always better. That’s the thing for us, going out on a high note,” said Lawrence, the first-year coach who would ideally want both a win over Wesley Chapel and a playoff game.
But for this team, this year, he gets it.
And for those who think a playoff game is a better note to head off into the offseason singing, consider: the Bulls made the playoffs in 2010 — losing 40-8 — and didn’t win another game until, oh, this season.
It’s not Tampa Catholic-Jesuit, or Pasco-Zephyrhills, and it is desperately in need of a cool name — I would suggest Brawl by the Mall, with the loser banned from The Shops at Wiregrass for one week — but it could be the perfect finale.
The Bulls can snap their 0-6 streak against Wesley Chapel, or the Wildcats can keep it going.
The Bulls can hand the Wildcats their first 0-10 mark, or Wesley Chapel can salvage its season.
And the seniors on either team can go out as something they have rarely been.
“This being the last game of the season for the first time, I love that,” Lawrence said.
For Wiregrass Ranch defensive back Devin Duckett, it’s pretty darned perfect. While it seemed odd for him to consider today’s game bigger than a playoff game, Duckett had to admit he wouldn’t trade it for a playoff game in East Bay or Plant City or Dover.
“This is pretty big,” he said. “It’s huge.”
The Bulls have done some good things this year, things that can’t always be measured in wins and losses, otherwise a 3-6 record might not look like quite the accomplishment it is.
It wasn’t always the way Lawrence wanted it, having hoped for a 7-3 season, but he gave his kids a reason to believe.
“There’s a lot of emotion going into this game,” said senior defensive back Giomani Davis.
They started 2-0, and beat a playoff-bound team in Hudson.
They have scored 65 more points than in their previous two seasons — combined.
The Bulls turned 23-, 38-, 41- and 47-point losses to district rivals last year into 20-, 7-, 20- and 32-point losses, respectively, this year.
They were far more competitive, which is one of the best things you can tell a coach who inherited a team with 22 straight losses.
Lawrence wants to win tonight, like he does every Friday.
His players, though, are the ones who have to decide just how badly they want this, and need this.
It is a chance to put away two years of misery, for the first time ever to walk around knowing they are the best football team in town, to leave something to come back to.
They are tougher, stronger and more resilient. It is no longer so easy to drag them to the turf. They might even one day soon remind the coach a little of the bronzed version of himself that sits outside Memorial Stadium in Omaha, Neb.
The 2-ton bronze Husker Legacy Statue shows a Kansas State running back, who happens to be Lawrence, being gang-tackled by six Cornhuskers during a 1995 game.
It’s supposed to show Nebraska dominance, one team ganging up on another.
“It doesn’t tell the whole story,” Lawrence said. “Look how many guys it took to bring me down.”