VALRICO — Wharton was 12 minutes from finishing its season on the grass field at Bloomingdale’s Charley Harris Stadium.
The Wildcats trailed Bloomingdale 23-8. Their high-powered aerial attack had been grounded for three quarters. A litany of special-teams miscues looked like it would keep Wharton out of the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Then the Wildcats engineered one of the greatest comebacks in school history.
Wharton scored 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, sparked by an 86-yard punt return by senior Jeremy Jefferson, to stun Bloomingdale 30-23 and earn the runnerup spot in Class 8A, District 6.
Wharton running back Jeff Keil scored the third of his three touchdowns with 29 seconds remaining and punched in the subsequent two-point conversion to give the Wildcats a seven-point lead. When Hayden Parks recovered a Bloomingdale fumble near midfield to snuff the Bulls’ final drive, an emotional Wharton coach David Mitchell stared disbelievingly at the scoreboard, tears in his eyes.
“These guys here said 'We’re not going to finish. We’re going to get this thing done,’ ” Mitchell said. “That just shows we finally found our identity that we’re a good football team.”
After going ahead 8-7 in the first quarter on a 2-yard touchdown run from Keil, the Wildcats (7-3, 3-2) were shutout until early in the fourth when it started using a hurry-up offense. Keil capped a 13-play, 64-yard drive with a 5-yard scoring run to cut the lead to 23-16 with 10:34 to go.
Bloomingdale’s next drive was stopped at the Wharton 47, and Jefferson fielded a punt at his 14, tiptoed down the left sideline and outraced the coverage for an 86-yard score. The two-point conversion run was stuffed, keeping Bloomingdale ahead 23-22.
Bloomingdale moved the ball to the Wharton 43, but a fumble with 4:11 remaining gave the Wildcats the ball at midfield. Auden Tate made a spectacular 18-yard catch on third and 15 to keep the drive moving, and Keil found the end zone three plays later with little time remaining.
“I could not fail there,” Keil said. “I was not going to be denied.”
Bloomingdale (5-4, 3-2) scored on its opening drive on a Tommy McLaughlin to Logan Crouse 30-yard touchdown pass. McLaughlin ran for a 14-yard touchdown, and Lucas Jose drilled a 40-yard field goal in the second quarter for a 17-8 Bloomingdale lead at halftime.
Bloomingdale had the ball inside the Wharton 10 twice in the third quarter but had to settle for a Jose field goal each time.
“We score those and make our extra points, we win,” Bloomingdale coach John Booth said.