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Homecoming, district titles, senior night, crosstown rivalries …none of it matters anymore. High school football’s second season starts Friday night and 11 Hillsborough teams enter with championship dreams. Of course, some dreams come true and others can — and do — turn into nightmares. What follows is our attempt to figure out which fate befalls the county’s top teams:
Next opponent: Orlando Freedom (7-2)
Playoff outlook: To make it out of their region, the defending Class 8A champions could face rematches against Orlando Dr. Phillips and East Lake, who have a combined 19-1 record. The Panthers aren’t quite as formidable as in previous seasons but they are as battle tested as ever.
Notable: The Panthers went undefeated against county opponents for the first time since 2006, when they finished 15-0 and won the 4A state title.
Next opponent: Orlando Dr. Phillips (10-0)
Playoff outlook: The Wildcats return to the scene of last year’s playoff defeat: Dr. Phillips, the top-ranked team in 8A. Wharton is much improved since that 21-point loss …but so are the Panthers. If the Wildcats get out of the first round, then a rematch against Plant likely awaits. In short, there is no easy way out of this region.
Notable: The Wildcats last finished 8-2 in 2008, when they beat Alonso in the first round of the playoffs but were knocked out by Chamberlain in the region semifinals.
Tampa Bay Tech (7-3)
Next opponent: Durant (10-0)
Playoff outlook: A loss to Gaither in the Titans’ district finale is the difference between hosting 6-4 Newsome and going on the road to face undefeated Durant. Tampa Bay Tech has the talent to contend but a lot of obstacles (Lakeland or Kissimmee Osceola) should mean another short-lived postseason run.
Notable: In 43 years of football, the Titans have never advanced past the second round of the playoffs.
Next opponent: Tampa Bay Tech (7-3)
Playoff outlook: Coming off their first unbeaten season, the Cougars have rolled through the second half of the season. They haven’t been seriously tested since a one-point win over Wharton in late September, meaning they’ll need to adjust quickly to the intensity of the postseason. Anything less than the region final would be a disappointment.
Notable: Junior TE Paxon Sims and senior LG Dalton Wilkerson left the regular-season finale against King with knee injuries. Coach Mike Gottman said neither injury appears season-ending.
Next opponent: Gaither (8-2)
Playoff outlook: The Wolves are capable of pulling an opening-round upset at Gaither but might be too reliant on QB/LB Will Worth, who leads the team in passing, rushing and tackles, to do much more than scare Durant or TBT in the next round.
Notable: Since a 34-10 season-opening defeat to TBT, Newsome has scored 30 or more points eight times.
Next opponent: Newsome (6-4)
Playoff outlook: When the Cowboys pulled out their 35-32 win over TBT for the 7A-7 title, they also earned a home opener for the playoffs. Alex McGough and Co. should do well against Newsome but either state-ranked Durant or revenge-minded TBT awaits in the region semifinals. If the Cowboys survive, they’ll likely have Lakeland or Kissimmee Osceola looming in the region finals.
Notable: Virtually all of the Cowboys’ losses in their eight previous playoff appearances have been lopsided. They’ve scored more than eight points only twice and lost by a combined score of 312-70.
Next opponent: Largo (10-0)
Playoff outlook: It’s difficult to know what to make of the Hawks after an uncharacteristically mediocre regular season (by their recent standards). The first three rounds are fraught with potential losses, from Largo in the opener to a rematch with Hillsborough, who beat them in the regular season, to top-ranked Gainesville in the region final. If they make it out of this region, the Hawks are legit.
Notable: The Hawks haven’t lost so much in the regular season since 2002, which was also the last time they failed to advance past the region semifinals.
Next opponent: Osceola (7-3)
Playoff outlook: The Terriers open at home with the Warriors, who are solid but nothing like what awaits in the next round —undefeated Largo or a rematch with Armwood. If Hillsborough gets past the region semifinals, consider the season a success.
Notable: In five postseason appearances since 2006, Armwood has eliminated the Terriers four times. The other team to knock them out? Largo in 2009.
Next opponent: Atlantic (8-2)
Playoff outlook: Coming off their first loss of the season, the Knights won’t have long to dwell on the defeat. Atlantic shouldn’t pose much of a threat, but there’s a possible rematch with Lakewood in the next round. If they survive that, unbeaten and virtually untested Pasco could be waiting in the region final. Regardless, Robinson is capable of a deep run — if not a state championship.
Notable: Robinson is making a school-record fourth consecutive postseason appearance. The Knights have won at least one playoff game in each of the previous three years.
Tampa Catholic (8-2)
Next opponent: Fort Meade (8-2)
Playoff outlook: The Crusaders, fresh off (another) crushing defeat to rival Jesuit, must rebound in time for a trip to Fort Meade. The Miners have won five straight, including routs in the past three by a combined score of 117-11. Clearwater Central Catholic or Frostproof would be up next. Get past them? Then a likely matchup against defending 3A champion Delray American Heritage awaits in the region final. That’s a lot to ask of any school, in any class.
Notable: Dating to the start of its 13-game losing streak to Jesuit, Tampa Catholic is 4-4 in the first round of the playoffs since 1999. The Crusaders have fared better in recent years, winning four of the past five playoff openers the week after a defeat to the Tigers.
Carrollwood Day (9-1)
Next opponent: Moore Haven (9-1)
Playoff outlook: The Patriots will have their hands full with Moore Haven, which features versatile speedsters Barrion and Darius Cohens. If they manage to get past the Terriers, then the likely opponent is undefeated Naples First Baptist, which has outscored opponents 434-96 this season. To put it another way: the Patriots have had a great season, but it probably won’t last much longer.
Notable: This is Carrollwood Day’s first playoff appearance since starting up an 11-man team in 2008.