We have officially moved from the wanna-win stage to the better-win stage, which is why tonight’s slate of high school football games should be the best we’ve had all season. Oh, sure, there’s been big games, national games, ESPN games, but when you get right down to it, it’s all about playoff games, isn’t it? This week, a host of teams plays for their postseason futures, and the matchups, well, let’s just say hundreds of area football players did a lot of tossing and turning Thursday night.
And maybe some of us writers, too.
1. Pasco (6-0, 4-0) at Land O’Lakes (6-0, 4-0)
I apologize for what I am about to write.
This is the game of the week, and I will not argue the point. It’s community vs. community, local dynasty vs. local dynasty, No. 1 vs. No. 1. Fathers and brothers and uncles of current players have starred in this series; tonight, they’ll sit in the stands. This showdown hasn’t been simmering for seven weeks, more like seven months. Players on both sides admit every game has been a dress rehearsal for this one. The coaches have tried to put as little on tape for the other as possible. Last week, the Pirates ran some spread, some wing-T, and the wishbone (and actually looked quite good in it). Needless to say, watching that game tape probably made Land O’Lakes coach Matt Kitchie giggle at the gamesmanship.
Now I know what you’re saying — it’s Pasco County, puh-lease! Agreed, the county has had a pretty rough season. More than half its teams have two wins or fewer. But these two teams are legitimate. Jefferson’s name may already be engraved on the Class 3A state championship trophy, but the Dragons will probably have to beat both of these teams to get there. We’ll know Friday night if they should be worried.
At stake: First-place in Class 3A, District 7. The loser will probably still claim the runnerup spot, but there’s a third undefeated team in that district (Sunlake) that might have something to say about it. And the winner will host Jefferson in a potential second-round game. That’s big.
Winner: Only because I have to, Pasco 29-28. But that could change by the time you read this. In fact …wait …ummmm …no, staying with the Pirates.
2. Berkeley Prep (5-1, 2-0) at Fort Meade (6-0, 2-0)
Fort Meade is a true state power, ranked No. 1 in Class A, and the Miners own Tampa Bay. While they have only played Berkeley Prep once (last year, a 50-22 win) since 1998, the Miners are 38-0 against the local boys in district play, with 19 shutouts. Only twice, including last year, has anyone put up double-digits on them. Enter the Bucs: solid quarterback, strong offensive line and a playmaker (Nelson Agholor) that matches up with any other team’s best. There’s a buzz that this year the Miners get their comeuppance, but first the Bucs will have to stop a tidal wave of blazing skill-position players.
At stake: First place in Class A-6. The loser will still be the runnerup, barring a miraculous Clearwater Central Catholic upset of Fort Meade later this season. Not happening, though.
Winner: Battle Field is a tough place to play. Right now, I see it Fort Meade 35-21, but Berkeley Prep has a chance and how often have we been able to say that. The playoff rematch should be a real doozy.
3. Brandon (6-0, 1-0) at Tampa Bay Tech (4-3, 1-0)
Tech isn’t its usual consistent self; the Titans are either suffering from last year’s graduation, or underachieving a little. But C.C. Culpepper has never had a problem getting his team up for the really big games (see earlier this season, Plant), and this is one. Brandon won three games last year, two against teams with a combined 1-19 record. This year? The Eagles are one of the season’s best stories. But are they for real? Tonight, that question gets a definitive answer. I have a deposit down on my bandwagon seat, just in case.
At stake: Barring some craziness, the winner will be 5A-7 champ and host either Countryside or East Lake, a pair of top 10 teams. The loser still makes the postseason.
Winner: I like the way Tech plays when its back is against the wall. Last week’s loss to King won’t be sitting well, so in an upset, Titans 17-16.
4. Tarpon Springs (3-4, 2-0) at Wiregrass Ranch (3-3, 2-0)
What? Really? Really! The Bulls think they can pull this one out, but I tend to disagree. As average as Tarpon has looked this season, can a team lose to Wesley Chapel, Sunlake and CCC, then beat the Spongers? I will say this: the Bulls can match Tarpon in athletes for a change, but the Spongers defense is so much better that it’s hard to see this as a close one. Still, it’s the biggest game in school history for the Bulls, and it might be even bigger for Tarpon Springs, which pretty much forced out its coach after a 10-3 2009 season.
At stake: Both are unbeaten in 4A-6, and a loss kicks Wiregrass back to the pack. Tarpon can likely absorb a defeat much better.
Winner: Until Pasco County shows me something, it’s Spongers 35-14.
5. Jefferson (6-0, 2-0) at Spoto (5-2, 2-0)
Should this game be higher? Maybe. But I think the bigger game, ultimately, will be when Spoto and Lakewood play Nov. 5 for the runnerup playoff spot. Spoto is a tough, scrappy team with no depth. Jefferson is flat-out excellent and deep. Defensively, the Spartans have the backs to slow the Dragons’ passing game. Too bad those same guys also have to produce points on the other side of the ball.
At stake: Jefferson can all but wrap up 3A-8 with a victory, and it should be a big night for quarterback Quentin Williams, who is poised to break Stephen Garcia’s career passing yardage record.
Winner: Jefferson should win comfortably, 35-14.
Armwood (6-0, 1-0) at Hillsborough (5-2, 1-0): Armwood's dominance -- the defense has allowed 13 points -- dampens the excitement for this one, and a more interesting game against King for the runnerup spot is on the horizon for the Terriers.
Boca Ciega (2-4, 1-1) at Largo (5-1, 2-0): The Pirates haven’t won a big game in years. They are finished if they don’t beat Largo, which can clinch a district title.
Countryside (7-0, 2-0) at Palm Harbor U. (3-3, 0-1): The Hurricanes were 3-0 at one point. Lately, they have been just tropically depressing. This is a must-win for their postseason hopes.
Plant (5-2, 1-0) at Alonso (2-4, 1-0): The Panthers should roll, but they have looked shaky enough to make you wonder about this one. Just a little.
Seminole (2-5, 1-1) at Pinellas Park (3-3, 0-1): Yeah, I know. But still, must-win for both teams.
King (5-2, 0-1) at East Bay (1-5, 0-1): King just beat Tech for the first time in decades. They have Hillsborough looming Nov. 5. Can you spell t-r-a-p?
Gaither (3-4, 0-1) at Chamberlain (1-6, 0-1): A Gaither win lines the Cowboys up for a playoff spot, after going 1-9 last year.