DADE CITY — Pasco coach Tom McHugh stood among a throng of reporters, his clothing completely soaked after a more satisfying than expected victory shower from his players, trying to put his team’s furious second-half comeback in perspective.
Pirates quarterback Jacob Guy was frozen at midfield, not sure whether to cheer or collapse from exhaustion, his eyes shifting from his teammates jumping up and down to the spectators hugging each other in the stands.
For Pasco, the post-game celebration following a 27-20 first round victory over Lakewood seemed more like a giant sigh of relief.
For two plus quarters, the Pirates’ 10-0 undefeated regular season and 35-point average margin of victory meant nothing to a Lakewood team that came ready to upend the Pirates (11-0) in the opening round of the playoffs for the second straight year.
Lakewood (6-5), behind junior quarterback Alphonso Evans, who masterfully orchestrated his team’s offense using his scrambling ability to buy time in the pocket and wait for one of his fleet-footed receivers to get open, stunned Pasco in rolling out to a 20-0 lead with nine minutes left in the third quarter.
Evans hit Jocqui Ellison on a 46-yard pass for a touchdown, and Max Thuriere connected on field goals of 27 and 28 yards to put the Spartans up 13-0 at halftime. They made it 20-0 early in the third when Evans hit Dennis Pugh on a 4-yard slant pattern.
Running out of answers, Pasco turned to its wildcat. And Tre Dudley-Giles finally returned the teeth to the Pirates’ attack.
With his team looking for any kind of spark after a first half plagued with miscues, Dudley-Giles took a shotgun snap from center out of the wildcat formation and raced 64 yards off the left side to ignite the cannon at W.F. Edwards Stadium.
“The wildcat is something we rarely pull out,” Dudley-Giles said. “We use it when we really need it. Coach told me at halftime, 'Trey get ready,’ because we needed a big play.”
Pasco’s defense held Lakewood on the Spartans’ next series, and the Pirates started to gain momentum and control of the game. Starting from its own 9-yard line, Pasco marched the length of the field in just nine plays, utilizing a double handoff running play that kept the Spartans off balance. David Emmanuel capped the drive with a 3-yard run off right tackle to make the score 20-14.
On Lakewood’s next drive, Pasco’s defense again held, and the Pirates offense, now clicking on all cylinders, got the ball back and ran it down the field at will. Emmanuel scored his second touchdown from 3 yards away with 10:15 to go, but a missed extra point kept the score tied.
Lakewood had a chance to escape with the win after getting the ball at the Pasco 42 with three minutes left but costly penalties pushed the Spartans back, and the Pirates’ Jamie Byrd picked off Evans to give his team the ball at the Lakewood 45.
In five plays, Pasco ran to the 4-yard line, and with 16 seconds on the clock, Janarion Grant broke a couple tackles to score the winning touchdown.
“I had to put it in,” Grant said. “I wasn’t going to let nothing stop me, nothing get in the way. I had to do it.”