TAMPA — It wasn’t the entire Berkeley Prep team, but one Buc in particular, who stood out in coach Mike Gregory’s mind as Tampa Catholic prepared to take on its district foe.
Two years ago, Nelson Agholor ran for 312 yards and had two touchdowns in the Buccaneers’ drubbing of the Crusaders. Back then, the future University of Southern California wide receiver was the source of Tampa Catholic’s despair. Now, he was a motivational tool.
“In order to win this game tonight, you’ve got to come up big,” Gregory told T.J. Harrell before Friday’s game. “You’ve got to be Nelson tonight. For us.”
Keeping his coach’s challenge in mind, Harrell rushed for two touchdowns, including a winning score with 52 seconds on the clock, to lead Tampa Catholic to a 17-10 road win against Berkeley Prep.
Harrell, who rushed for 123 yards, was the sole spark in an otherwise lifeless night for the Crusaders.
Tampa Catholic (6-1, 3-0) came into the matchup atop the Class 3A state rankings. Still, the night was quiet. The game began with a sparse crowd, and there was neither a band nor dueling student sections to liven the atmosphere. The play on the field matched the surroundings.
Harrell scored the first points with 11:13 to go in the second quarter on a 7-yard run, and the Crusaders took the small lead into halftime. The Bucs (2-4, 0-3) forced four three-and-outs before the break.
Tampa Catholic padded its lead late in the third quarter with a 27-yard field goal from Michael Sarafianos. The next 14 minutes, though, were all Bucs.
After driving to the 6-yard line, quarterback Brad Mayes threw three consecutive incomplete passes and the Bucs settled for a 23-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. With 2:10 on the clock, Berkeley Prep finally made it to the end zone, as Jacob Mathis followed a 70-yard reception with an 8-yard touchdown catch.
“We kept our poise,” Berkeley coach Dominick Ciao said about his team’s game-tying drive. “We made some plays.”
The Crusaders, desperate to keep its perfect district record intact, had one last chance to do the same.
After more than three quarters of floundering, quarterback Kyle Ploucher’s offense marched down the field, and on third and 4, with the Crusaders at the 22-yard line, Harrell saw a big hole.
“It was set up perfectly,” he said. “We saw the linebacker shift. There was nobody in my hole where I’m going.”
Nobody, except a referee.
“I had to avoid him,” Harrell said, laughing. “I saw the end zone goal line and just fell in.”
Thanks to Harrell, the Crusaders finished Friday’s game the victors — just barely.
“Winning is hard work,” Gregory told his huddled team after the game, fans filing out of Stanford J. Newman Stadium.
The Crusaders’ solemn expressions proved they had learned that the hard way.