TAMPA — Fort Meade hasn’t missed the postseason since 1997, a run of 16 playoff appearances.
Tampa Catholic, though, put that streak in jeopardy on Friday while establishing itself as the team to beat in Class 3A, District 4.
The Crusaders wore down a depleted Fort Meade after halftime, scoring 26 unanswered points to win 39-13.
“I knew going in that (Fort Meade’s) depth was a little bit of an issue,” Tampa Catholic coach Mike Gregory said. “And we thought we could capitalize on that.”
Tampa Catholic’s ascension to the head of the district started after the break. Michael Sarafianos was true with a 31-yard field goal on its opening drive. And after holding Fort Meade to a three-and-out, Tampa Catholic freshman Bentlee Sanders returned a punt 40 yards for a touchdown that made the score 23-13.
“That was the momentum swing,” Gregory said. “And I think looking over at their sideline, that was when they put their heads down a little bit.”
After another three-and-out by the defense, the Crusaders embarked on an 11-play, 71-yard drive that effectively iced the game. T.J. Harrell had 41 of his 81 rushing yards and plunged over the goal line from 2 yards for a 30-13 lead.
Sarafianos added a 28-yard field goal, and Kenny Bryant scored on a 1-yard run in the fourth to push the lead to 26 points. Fort Meade had allowed only six points in three games prior to Friday.
“The type of offense we have, the physicality we possess, we wore them down,” Harrell said.
Tampa Catholic (3-1, 1-0) scored on its opening drive of the game when Kyle Ploucher connected with Isaiah Osby for a 61-yard touchdown pass. Fort Meade (3-1, 0-1) answered later in the quarter on a 61-yard touchdown pass of its own from Jay Smith to Tobias Culpepper.
Harrell broke a couple of tackles midway through the second for a 35-yard touchdown run to put the Crusaders back in the lead. But Fort Meade tied it before the half on Smith’s 3-yard carry.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Gregory said. “We’re resilient. We’re in shape, and we’re starting to click as a football team.”