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DADE CITY — Pasco couldn’t have picked a more unlikely hero in last year’s Class 5A region semifinals than Brandon Ray.
On a team with at least five Division I recruits, Ray was an undersized 5-foot-10 freshman. He inherited the kicking job only after Pasco’s starter was injured. His head coach knew little about him when he brought him up to the varsity team, not as a kicker but as a backup quarterback.
“I didn’t know who he was,” coach Tom McHugh said this week.
McHugh and the rest of the state found out pretty quickly. Ray hit a 21-yard field goal as time expired to earn a 31-28 road win over power Citra North Marion last fall.
The Pirates are back in the region semifinals this season, but Ray has a new confidence and a handful of new roles. He has evolved from an aloof, unsung kicker to a three-way X factor heading into tonight’s matchup with Gainesville Eastside.
“He’s a football player who can also kick,” Pirates assistant Brad Starling said.
Starling has known that for a long time. Ray has played sports with Starling’s children for years, so Starling knew Ray was athletic with a Teflon mentality that wouldn’t let mistakes stick.
That’s why, when Pasco was looking for a serviceable quarterback last fall to give the ball to the playmakers if starter Jacob Guy were injured, Starling suggested bringing up Ray from the JV team. That Ray could kick a little was an afterthought.
“All right,” McHugh said. “Let’s bring him.”
Ray never got his shot at quarterback, but he took over kicking duties after an injury to Carson Brock. That’s how Ray found himself in the playoff game at North Marion, booting a 46-yarder without bothering to check the distance and hearing his coach call him an eighth-and-a-half-grader before he kicked the winner.
“I never thought that those field goals could mean anything for the game,” Ray said. “I jut got out there and kicked it, like I was kicking in practice. I didn’t really think about it.”
Ray has always been a clutch, versatile talent. He’s a scratch golfer and good soccer player. His first Little League home run was a winner over the right-centerfield wall, and he pitched a shutout the next day to push his team to the tournament of champions.
“He’s done that at just about every level, ever since he was little,” said his father, Shannon.
Ray wanted to line up at other positions last fall, but coaches didn’t want to risk an injury to a kicker whose 165-pound frame was still maturing. After hard training in the offseason — and getting recruiting letters from Nebraska and LSU — Ray has played all over the field.
“Just kicking’s kinda boring,” Ray said. “You don’t want to do that all the time.”
Coaches thought about putting Ray at linebacker but moved him to safety, where he beat out older players on the depth chart to record 24 tackles and an interception. He has also caught two passes at slot receiver.
But, like it or not, Ray’s highlights remain at kicker. He has 26 touchbacks and made 50 extra points. He drilled field goals of 39 and 40 yards in last week’s playoff opener, and the game changed when he boomed a 57-yard punt that North Marion muffed deep in its territory. The Pirates recovered, setting up the game’s first touchdown and putting Pasco ahead for good.
“Even now he’s still labeled as the kicker,” his father said. “I guess that’s going to stick with him. People remember that kick last year more than anything.”
While his winner is a part of North Suncoast history, teammates don’t forget his day-to-day work. Two-star running back David Emmanuel praises his big heart. Three-star athlete Janarion Grant considers Ray another one of Pasco’s standout skill players.
“He’s just a football player,” four-star lineman Joey Ivie said. “He’s not scared of anything.”