When the state’s top two teams from Classes 5A, 6A, 7A and 8A meet today and Saturday in Orlando for the state championship games, Tampa Bay will be on the sidelines. No area teams qualified for the first time since 2000.
If it’s a funny feeling to the rest of Tampa Bay, it’s all too familiar in the North Suncoast, where no team has made it to the state final since Pasco won it all in 1992.
Because it’s the 20th anniversary of the county’s lone state championship, here’s a look back at the Pirates’ run to the Class 3A state crown:
Pasco had to lose before it learned how to win. In 1991, the Pirates were 11-0, ranked first in the state and confident heading into a section championship game against Alachua Santa Fe. But the Raiders rolled over Pasco 35-16, leaving the Pirates in tears and ready for revenge.
“When we lost that junior year, going into my senior year, we had a chip on our shoulder,” said Darren Hambrick, who starred for the Pirates before playing in the NFL. “I remember at the beginning of that senior year, I told coach Perry Brown, we ain’t losing. We ain’t losing a game. We’re gonna win it all.”
Pasco had seen power teams, but the Pirates hadn’t faced a pass-happy offense like the one they encountered in the state semifinals against Pace.
Led by future Florida State quarterback Thad Busby, Pace took a 10-7 halftime lead, giving Pasco its toughest challenge of the season.
“That was our first sign of trouble,” Hambrick said.
Pasco took the lead in the second half with a trick play — a reverse to Chris Jones, who then threw a touchdown pass to Taras Ross — but Pace came back with a 66-yard TD drive.
The Pirates had two more answers, after Troy Hambrick’s 56-yard run set up a TD pass from Issac Johnson to Darren Hambrick. Johnson sealed the game with an interception at his own 13-yard line in the final four minutes.
Johnson was arrested the day before the state title game on a five-month-old probation charge. The arrest happened shortly after a Tampa Tribune reporter saw Johnson’s outstanding arrest in a database and wondered why he had not been booked, inciting a controversy that had the district’s superintendent questioning the paper’s motives.
Johnson was released from jail the morning of the game and finished 4-of-7 for 124 yards and a touchdown.
The final game
About 3,000 Pasco fans made the trip to Gainesville for the 3A state title game against Jesuit. Pasco players thought they had faced their toughest test the week before and that Jesuit’s run game wouldn’t be able to do much against a Pasco defense that held South Sumter to 44 yards in the first three quarters in the section final.
“If you didn’t have power game that matched up with us,” Pirates star and NFL running back Troy Hambrick said, “you didn’t stand a chance.”
The Pirates made plenty of mistakes — four turnovers in Tigers territory — that made the final score (28-16) seem closer than it was. The Pirates led by 21 through three quarters and had an interception and a long kickoff return called back by penalties.
“It was one of the relaxed games,” Troy Hambrick said. “All you can do is enjoy the moment, being on Florida Field, in front of the whole world, and this little country team finally getting somewhere.”
If you find film of the Pirates’ win over Jesuit, a camera pans across the stands. One family of fans doesn’t have a child at the school. The father didn’t teach at Pasco yet, but he lived in town and was a regular at games.
“It’s just what we did,” current Pirates coach Tom McHugh said.
His children are now grown and married, but on the screen, he says, they’re small.
“All my kids are like, this big,” McHugh said, motioning his hand just above his desk.