Clearwater Central Catholic is attempting to do what no Pinellas County high school football team has done: win a state title.
The Marauders (11-2), who host Jacksonville Trinity Christian (11-1) in Saturday’s Class 3A final at the Citrus Bowl, are the ninth team from Pinellas County to advance to a championship game but will try to become the first to win since 1963, when the Florida High School Athletic Association began its state finals.
The county, with 921,319 residents, is by far the largest in the state that has yet to hoist a championship trophy in football.
“I’m rooting for (CCC coach) John Davis to win this thing for once,” said former Shorecrest coach Jack Pribyl, who guided the Chargers to the state finals in 1975 and ’76. “I sure hope this county isn’t hexed when it comes to these championship games.”
Defeat in the state finals has been as spectacular and excruciating as it has been regular. Pinellas has been shut out in a state final in five of eight appearances. It has been 27 years since a county team has scored in a championship game. (Dunedin scored 10 and Tarpon Springs six in separate games in 1986.)
Bad bounces and better teams and players have conspired to influence Pinellas County’s gloomy fate. Whenever a team has reached the ultimate destination, victory has been fleeting and ephemeral, not an encouraging sign that further success is ahead but a taunting hint that disaster is just around the corner.
Pribyl was the first to guide teams to the finals, taking a Shorecrest team that started as a middle school program in the early 1970s to a meteoric rise. In the 1975 Class A championship game, the Chargers dressed just 19 players and lost to Greensboro 28-0. Shorecrest returned to the title game the following season, losing to Tallahassee Florida A&M 38-0.
“We just kind of came out of the box so fast as a fairly new program,” Pribyl said. “It’s hard to explain because it all happened so fast. We never thought we would get there that quickly. I’m not sure I appreciated getting there as much as I should have because it didn’t seem that difficult at the time.
“But now I realize how much of an accomplishment it truly was.”
The county didn’t have another team appear in the state final until 1984, when St. Petersburg watched its undefeated dream season end with a 47-14 loss to Pensacola Escambia.
The Green Devils took the long road to get there, traveling to Naples, Homestead and Pensacola during their playoff run. In the final, St. Petersburg faced a 15-year-old running back named Emmitt Smith.
Yes, that Emmitt Smith, the former Florida Gator and Dallas Cowboys star who went on to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. In the state title game, Smith gashed the Green Devils for 205 yards and two touchdowns.
“Back then, even the finals were on the road,” said St. Petersburg coach Jim Mewha. “We had a hard time finding film. There were a couple of junior varsity coaches who scouted them for us and said they had a running back who was small but pretty good.
“That was Emmitt Smith. I always like to say we were the first ones to make him famous.”
The issue of state title futility almost became moot Dec. 19, 1986. Dunedin hosted Lakeland for the state Class 5A championship, while 12 miles away Tarpon Springs battled Fort Lauderdale Dillard for the 4A title.
Dunedin fell behind early and could not catch up in a 14-10 loss. Tarpon Springs led 6-0 with three minutes to play only to surrender two touchdowns and lose 14-6.
“I’d like to say we were the closest to ever winning a state title,” said Don Davis, an assistant for Tarpon when it made the final. “Dillard threw a Hail Mary for a touchdown and got a defensive score late. Man, that was tough.”
The next year, Dunedin again lost the 5A championship game at home, 24-0 to Pensacola Pine Forest.
“Those two state finals appearances were somewhat surreal for me,” said Ken Weir, who coached Dunedin in both championship games. “It was unbelievable for me because I got there in my first year as a head coach. I had to kind of pinch myself.”
In 1995, Dixie Hollins, under coach Todd Wilson, made the finals, losing to Fort Walton Beach 24-0.
“We were a really good team, but you also have to be lucky just to get there,” Wilson said. “We caught some breaks at the right time. Though we lost, it’s something that you cherish because you don’t get those opportunities often.”
The last final appearance came two years ago when Admiral Farragut was beaten by North Florida Christian 69-0. It was the worst loss in state finals history.
“I just remember how close the game was,” quipped former Farragut coach Chris Miller, who is now at Seminole. “All kidding aside, we were overmatched in every facet. It was truly a David vs. Goliath sort of thing and David obviously won.
“I know John (Davis) will have his team ready and I think they have a shot. I know I will be pulling for him. Hopefully, the rest of the county is, too.”
Futility in the finals
Pinellas is 0-8 in state championship games:
1975 Greensboro 28, Shorecrest 0
1976 FAMU 38, Shorecrest 0
1984 Escambia 47, St. Petersburg 14
1986 Lakeland 14, Dunedin 10
1986 Dillard 14, Tarpon Springs 6
1987 Pine Forest 24, Dunedin 0
1995 Fort Walton Beach 24, Dixie Hollins 0
2011 North Florida Christian 69, Admiral Farragut 0