TAMPA — Seated in his golf cart in the west end zone of Jack Peters Field, Robinson coach Mike DePue’s eyes are fastened to the Knights players trickling onto the weather-beaten turf.
These days, in these parts, it’s so tempting to peer farther; to glance at perfection, to cast a wandering eye toward supremacy, to gaze toward immortality.
Yet as he speaks on this mild afternoon, DePue looks no farther than the other end zone. Not that he can afford to. A loss Friday at undefeated Lakewood in the Class 5A, District 8 championship game, and all those visions become delusions.
“This will be the game to find out if we’re that team of destiny,” DePue says. “Are we that good? This is the defining moment of our season.”
The Knights (7-0, 6-0), who already have set a state single-season mark with 12 defensive touchdowns, can pick off a succession of program milestones in the next six weeks or so.
But some won’t be attained if they fall to the Spartans (7-0, 6-0) Friday in south St. Petersburg. A loss not only denies Robinson of the district crown, but forces the Knights to the road for at least the first two rounds of the playoffs.
“This is the biggest game of the season,” said Knights senior tailback/strong safety Martin Ruiz, the team’s leading rusher.
“We can’t really take it easy just because we’re in the playoffs. We’ve still got to play hard so we can play at home. We don’t want to go away and stuff.”
But the stakes transcend a home-field advantage. In essence, DePue wants to know if this is a great Knights team or a historic one.
Lakewood is the first team Robinson has faced with a current winning record since its 31-10 win at Jesuit six weeks ago. Its previous four foes, against whom it scored seven of those defensive TDs, are a combined 7-23.
“We have not had a money game since Jesuit,” DePue said. “We’ve talked about dreams and reality. We’ve had a dream season. Now, the reality is, can you make it happen at that top level?”
Lakewood, which DePue calls the most athletic team Robinson has seen, did that only seven days ago.
The Spartans had been mostly untested entering last week’s district showdown at Jesuit, which had to win to keep its postseason hopes alive. But a prolific West Coast-style passing attack (178 yards), and a blocked field goal by senior Shaquill Griffin in the final minute, preserved a 20-17 triumph.
“They can take a simple play and turn it into a 70-yard touchdown in a heartbeat,” DePue said.
Marquez Valdes, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior, had eight catches for 98 yards and two TDs. Senior quarterback Tracy Johnson was sacked roughly a half-dozen times at Jesuit, but finished 16-for-27 for 178 yards and three TDs.
“We can’t mess up (on their receivers) once, no mistakes, or they will get us,” Ruiz said.
Then there’s the trench matchup. Robinson’s sizeable, seasoned lines must contend with a Lakewood roster featuring 11 players who weigh 230 or more pounds, including four 300-pounders. With that, another layer is added to DePue’s weightiest challenge of the year.
Which is to say, he can neither look past — nor around — Lakewood.
“This year, they have a bunch of great players, we’ve got a bunch of great players,” DePue said. “We’ll try to see if these guys will step up to that championship mentality, which you’ve got to have.”
Should they get by Lakewood on Friday, the Robinson Knights (7-0) could be poised to pick off one milestone after another in November. Here are the goals within their grasp, and the last time they were reached:
The last time Robinson …
Won a district title: 2010 (Class 2A-5)
Defeated Plant: 2004 (19-10 at home)
Had an undefeated regular season: 1963
Reached the state title game: 1971 (4A)
Won a state title: Never