TAMPA — As Jesuit coach James Harrell rallied his team inside the locker room after Friday’s Class 5A region semifinal, he looker over his shoulder and pointed to the “Play Like a Champion Today” sign posted just above the locker room entrance.
“Make sure you touch it,” he said.
The second-year Tigers coach put up the sign, which mirrors Notre Dame’s fabled sign with the same motto, this season. A similar sign hung during his past stint as a Jesuit assistant during the program’s heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Sometimes you have to go back to basics,” Harrell said.
The Tigers’ 35-20 home win over district rival Robinson was a landmark victory. With its 11th straight win, Jesuit avenged last year’s loss to the Knights in this round and the Tigers earned their first region final berth since 2004.
“We knew they’d be prepared,” Harrell said. “They’re a good football team. I just felt all along that we’d outscore them and our defense would rise to the occasion because we wanted to go further than last year.”
Jesuit (11-1) played its trademark possession football with the intent of keeping the ball out of the hands of Robinson senior receiver Byron Pringle.
And despite dominating possession — Robinson had the ball just 3:11 in the first half — Jesuit found itself in a dogfight, leading 14-13 midway through the second quarter after a pair of Pringle scores, a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 95-yard touchdown reception.
At halftime, the Tigers had dominated in every facet, including first downs (23-1) and total yards (347-93), but clung to a one-possession lead 21-13.
Jesuit senior quarterback Tommy Eveld, who completed his first nine attempts, threw for 286 yards and two touchdowns and commanded a ball control offense that also ran for 236 yards. Tigers tailback Will Lucas ran for a game-high 113 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.
“It was exciting to see our offense able to make big plays and make first downs in order to maintain possession and make sure we could control at least that,” Harrell said. “If you have the ball long enough, you’re eventually going to score. It’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to play keep-away sometimes.”
Take away Pringle’s 95-yard touchdown catch and the Jesuit defense held Robinson (9-3) to 27 yards total offense, including minus-13 yards rushing.
“I just wasn’t in the stars today I guess, but it was one of the wildest things I’ve seen in a long time,” Robinson coach Mike DePue said. “Hey, nobody gave us any credit this year, and guess what. We made it to the playoffs and we’re real proud.”