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DADE CITY — For peewee players hoping to become future football stars, special teams duty might seem like a chore or a job for lowly substitutes.
Until those players get to Pasco, where coaches teach them the personal and team rewards of the game’s third phase.
“I think it’s when everybody buys into it and realizes that there’s a possibility every time the ball’s kicked to us that they have a chance to score on it,” coach Tom McHugh said. “There’s a pride to being on that unit.”
With good reason. Pasco’s 11 special teams touchdowns lead Tampa Bay and have propelled the Pirates to a 12-0 record and Friday’s Class 5A region final matchup with Jesuit.
In the playoff opener against Alachua Santa Fe, Pasco’s offense was stagnant with two first-quarter interceptions. Janarion Grant ignited the team and lit up the scoreboard by snagging a high punt and racing 71 yards for a touchdown. He did the same thing in the regular season in a pivotal district game against runnerup Fivay.
Special teams also fueled last week’s 31-28 victory over Citra North Marion. Trey Dudley-Giles ripped off a punt return into the Colts’ red zone to set up a key first-half touchdown, and freshman kicker Brandon Ray won the game with 21-yard field goal as time expired.
“When he made it, that was it,” Grant said after the game. “He’s got a couple more years left, so he’ll be pretty good.”
The winning kick was the most important, but it wasn’t Ray’s most impressive field goal. Ray boomed a 46-yarder in the second quarter.
His 22-yarder at the end of the second half was a chip shot — a routine play that proved pivotal.
“If you don’t take it seriously and they block it,” McHugh said, “then you don’t win the game.”
With three Division I-A prospects returning kicks or punts, Pasco takes its special teams seriously. The Pirates work on schemes and blocking for at least 30 minutes each practice to prepare for a game-changing play.
Dudley-Giles and Grant have each scored four times on a special teams unit that averages almost one touchdown per game. J.D. Edwards and David Emmanuel have each taken kickoffs back for touchdowns, and Pasco also scored on a blocked punt.
“All the athletes and the threats we have,” Dudley-Giles said. “If you prepare for all of us, it’s hard because you have so many of us that can do certain things and do multiple things. It makes us a threat where you have multiple athletes.”
The Pirates average 30 yards on punt returns and 43 on kickoffs and could find themselves in position for a big return Friday. Jesuit gave up a 99-yard kickoff return for a score last week against Robinson and a 97-yarder against Spoto in the regular season.
“That means we’ve got a chance,” Emmanuel said.
McHugh credits his players for understanding the importance of special teams and establishing a strong tradition in the kicking game.
Former Pirates like Josh Johnson (Purdue) and Mitch Wozniak (Florida International) played on special teams in high school. When they got to college, their experience and skills helped them play early. Future college-aspiring Pirates have taken notice, and Pasco is seeing the benefits.
“They’re all on special teams, and that’s how you get on the travel squad,” McHugh said. “They start realizing special teams probably isn’t as bad as everybody makes it out to be.”