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PLANT CITY — In many ways, Durant’s undefeated season in fall 2012 started rather inauspiciously about a decade ago with a mediocre youth football team called the Turkey Creek Trojans.
Longtime friends Cody Martin, Dalton Wilkerson and Alex Wood made up three-fifths of the starting offensive line for a team that rarely won more than a handful of games per season.
“We never had a really good record,” said Wilkerson, now a 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior. “But we were known for being some country boys who would go out and hit people.”
Now at Durant, they’re still three-fifths of the starting offensive line and still known for going out and hitting people but their record has finally caught up with their reputation.
The Cougars’ offensive line has been crucial in the school’s first unbeaten football season. Behind that old Trojans trio, who form the interior of the line, and tackles Nick Insley and Zach Whitney, Durant has rushed for 218 yards per game in a decidedly old-school approach to offense.
They’ll need to do more of the same Friday night in their Class 7A playoff opener against Tampa Bay Tech, which boasts a number of college prospects including defensive tackle Jevon Fripp, who has committed to Tennessee State.
The Titans (7-3) will almost certainly pose the stiffest challenge for the Cougars, who have won only one game by fewer than two touchdowns — a 14-13 victory over Class 8A Wharton on Sept. 28.
“What I’ve told them is that respect is gained weekly,” said Durant coach Mike Gottman, who is making his fourth playoff appearance in 10 years. “We have to go out and prove we’re a good football team to people who don’t know much about us.”
Out in far eastern Hillsborough County, Gottman and his players remain convinced their accomplishments have been overlooked because of their distance from the other county powers.
Their school is about 15 miles from the intersection of Interstate 75 and Highway 60, and sits amid strawberry fields, citrus groves and open pastures. Durant’s practice field is adjacent to a pasture where cows graze during their workouts with a few orange trees at the other end.
“People come out here and see the cows and all this land,” said senior running back Jamarlon Hamilton, who has rushed for nearly 1,200 yards and 17 touchdowns this fall. “But then they get on the field with us and they talk about our passion and not the environment.”
Over the past two seasons, the Cougars have also forced opponents to deal with a run-based spread option offense — a cousin to the old triple option, which relies heavily on misdirection and a mobile offensive line — that has generated impressive results.
Durant averaged 272 rushing yards per game last season with Hamilton and then-senior quarterback Nick Fabrizio both surpassing 1,000 yards behind an experienced offensive line.
But the Cougars lost four games in 2011, including a first-round home playoff defeat to Gaither where they held a 23-7 halftime lead.
“We didn’t finish the job,” Gottman said. “We had them. But we didn’t keep up the pressure.”
Despite the graduation of Fabrizio and three offensive linemen, Gottman and his players remained optimistic they would rebound.
No one would have predicted 10-0.
They did it with Hamilton and sophomore Chris Atkins handling most of the running, a more efficient passer in junior quarterback Trey VanDeGrift, the all-around contributions of senior kick returner and runner Zach Hooper and a defense that has held four opponents scoreless and three others to only a touchdown.
Not to mention an offensive line experiencing the kind of success few could have predicted during their pee-wee football days.
The former Trojans and their new additions have grown up, averaging 6-foot-2 and 236 pounds across the offensive line — far from imposing but big enough to get the job done.
Forged through their earlier failures and recent success, the guys have formed brotherly bonds. They hang out and off campus, boasting about the time they forced one local restaurant to stop its “all you can eat wings” special because two of them devoured 117 chicken wings during one meal.
“I’ve never felt a team-like atmosphere like this before,” Martin said. “There hasn’t really been a bond like the one that we have.”
Of course, the Cougars know little of this will mean much outside of their corner of the county if Tampa Bay Tech knocks them out of the playoffs.
They know local football fans will say they feasted on a weak schedule, that they lacked the blue-chip recruits the Titans had, and that they again came up short in a big game — the Cougars haven’t won a playoff game since 2003.
“We still don’t have the respect,” said Hamilton, echoing the words of his coach. “So we’ll have to go out and take it.”