TARPON SPRINGS — Both teams use words like pride and spirit, intensity, closeness and respect in the unfolding of this new rivalry.
Tarpon Springs (6-4) and Anclote (6-4) appear joined at the hip, both members of Class 5A and both antsy to beat each other tonight in their first-round playoff game.
One team will advance to the region semifinals — the other will slump backward in this backyard brawl.
“It’s a pretty big game for everyone involved,” Tarpon Springs linebacker Damarkus Jones said. “It’s a good rivalry we have going because we all know each other on both teams. And there’s a lot at stake because this is the playoffs.”
This is a rivalry born out of proximity. Though the schools play in different counties they are roughly 5 miles apart. The only thing separating the cities is the Anclote River, which runs through parts of Holiday and Tarpon Springs.
Still, a game never materialized until this year when both teams agreed to play in the preseason.
“I always thought it made sense for the two of us to play,” Anclote coach Matt Wicks said. “We’re roughly the same size as Tarpon, and we both draw from the same demographic. I had been trying for the past few years to get a game going, and we were finally able to make it happen.”
So close are the schools that nearly every player from each team has some sort of connection — whether it was middle school or youth leagues — with the opponent.
“These players could go to the grocery store and know someone from the other school every time,” Tarpon Springs coach Ron Hawn said.
Spongers receiver Montel Johnson and Sharks defensive back Isreal Cooper are cousins. Johnson went to Paul R. Smith Middle School in Holiday and knows just about every Anclote player.
Sharks offensive lineman Nguyen Ly, one of the team’s captains, went to Tarpon Middle School and knows most of the Spongers.
“It’s pretty neat to see how close we are with one another,” Ly said.
Families often have relatives in both cities, and their athletes and students constantly switch schools. The most notable transfer was Dondre Daley, a Division I receiver who left Anclote to play his senior season at Tarpon Springs in 2011.
During his season with the Spongers, Daley invited many of his new teammates to play weekend pickup games with players from Anclote at the recreation center in Holiday. Jones was one of those players.
“Because of those games I got to know pretty much everyone on that team,” Jones said of Anclote. “I still talk to them, and there’s plenty of trash talk going on this week.”
Jones has the bragging rights, leading Tarpon Springs to a 28-3 win over Anclote in the preseason.
Despite a game finally being played, the programs seemed to lack a central ingredient to any rivalry: something to win. There was no trophy to hold onto for a year.
This season, the teams have something better — and bigger — at stake by facing off in the postseason for the first time.
“At first I thought that was all we were going to have was a preseason game,” Jones said. “Then I started looking a little bit more closely at the districts and regions and knew it was possible that we could play each other again. I’m glad it happened. It makes it more fun.”
The teams also mirror each other on the field. Both went on late-season win streaks to secure playoff berths and rely on a strong running game.
“We’re identical in almost every way imaginable,” Hawn said. “That’s what makes it a good rivalry, and what should be a good playoff game.”