TAMPA — The climb to legitimacy started with three straight victories, a mostly predictable string of wins that created the heightened expectations.
But Wharton understands that it must burnish its credentials with victories against teams other than King, Sickles and Chamberlain.
Indeed, if the Wildcats are to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, they will have to notch wins against teams like the one coming to Wildcat Stadium on Friday night: the Durant Cougars.
With a victory, Wharton will be off to its first 4-0 start since 2006 and set up an even bigger game against defending Class 8A state champion Plant next week. If the Wildcats lose — especially in a manner similar to last year’s 20-point humiliation at Durant — then basketball season is only a few weeks away.
“Durant is one of those teams where we can prove that we’re solid,” linebacker Rocky Enos said. “But I love being the underdog. It gives us more to fight for.”
The Wildcats are trying to sell themselves as underdogs even if voters in the Times’ HomeTeam Pick-Em aren’t buying it. According to the unofficial results of this week’s poll, about two-thirds of voters favored Wharton over Durant (3-0).
This is rarefied air for Wharton (3-0), which has lost no fewer than two of its first four games in the past five seasons.
The prospects haven’t been so promising for the program since 2006, when the Wildcats won their first seven games and finished 8-2. Defense carried them that season, as the Wildcats allowed the fewest points per game (six) of any team in Hillsborough and sent at least a half-dozen players to college teams — including Michigan State’s Jairus Jones, Florida Atlantic’s Jamere Johnson and Josh Jones, who played at Elon University and later went to training camp with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
Johnson and Jones, who stopped by the New Tampa school earlier this week, said this year’s Wildcats are good but not quite at that level.
“They’re up there,” Johnson said. “But not as good as us, though.”
Wharton coach David Mitchell, who was in his second season leading the program that year, brushed off any comparisons.
“We’re getting back to that,” Mitchell said.
Some of the reason for the hype could be because Wharton boasts one of the area’s top recruits on each side of the ball.
On offense, 6-foot-6 junior quarterback Chase Litton powers the Wildcats’ dynamic passing attack. Litton, who has an offer from LSU, is completing 63 percent of his pass attempts for 719 yards and seven touchdowns.
Mitchell said Litton has grown into a leadership role, and Litton said the rest of his teammates have come together quickly to make up for several key losses — particularly at the skill positions — through graduation.
“I believe in the weapons we have now,” Litton said.
One of those weapons, senior defensive back Vernon Hargreaves III, spends most of his time on defense in his new role as a safety.
The shift was made to prevent teams from completely avoiding Hargreaves, who spent much of the previous season as shutdown cornerback. As a safety, Hargreaves said, he can cover more ground and make more plays.
“They can’t isolate me anymore,” said Hargreaves, a Florida commit.
But the Wildcats will need much more than Litton and Hargreaves to turn the tables on Durant, which beat them 41-21 last year. The Cougars rushed for 415 yards in that game and limited Wharton to 163, completely controlling the game after Hargreaves opened the contest with a 99-yard kickoff return.
“They came out and destroyed us,” Litton said.
“They dominated,” Hargreaves added.
Not much has changed for Durant, which still boasts a powerful running game behind senior Jamarlon Hamilton. The Cougars are even tougher on defense, where they’ve shut out opponents for 10 straight quarters and have allowed a single touchdown through three games.
“This will be our biggest game so far,” Durant coach Mike Gottman said. “They’re good and they’re ranked a little higher than us on paper. They’ll probably get picked to beat us.”
Maybe so. But favorite or underdog, Wharton will need to win to justify those expectations.
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jdanderson.