TAMPA — For the past three years, Tampa Bay Tech has advanced to the region semifinal. And lost.
The Titans (8-3), riding a six-game win streak, are aiming to break into the region final round for the first time on the backs of a defensive unit that has matured and shown steady improvement all season. The obstacle is a home rematch against district foe Gaither (8-3).
“We start three sophomores and three juniors on defense, and a lot of those guys are guys that had never played varsity football before,” coach Jayson Roberts said. “Truthfully, it was a growing process, and they started to mature at the right time. Right now, our defense, we’re playing as well as we have played all season.”
In last week’s playoff game against Brandon, the TBT defense posted a shutout, complete with two sacks, a fumble recovery, an interception and a safety as the offense rolled in a 37-0 win. The forced fumble came early in the game, as Tre’s Stewart put his helmet on the ball and forced it loose at Brandon’s 14-yard line, setting up the Titans’ opening score.
Roberts also pointed to defensive play in the second quarter that helped fully swing the momentum in the Titans’ favor. A Brandon running back broke through the line and found open space in the secondary, but a swarm of defenders chased him down. A few plays later, the defense got a stop on fourth and goal from the TBT 3-yard line, and the offense drove 97 yards for the second touchdown.
“Earlier in the season, that long run would have been a touchdown, but the guys have grown; they stuck with the play and chased it down,” Roberts said. “Friday nights, especially on defense, all it takes is one person to fall, slip, misread, miss a tackle, and a big play bursts for a touchdown.”
The linebacker corps, which features three first-year starters in Tre Watson, Fred Russ and Kenny Siplin, has let fewer and fewer of those runs through as the season has progressed. Siplin, a junior, led the team in tackles during the regular season with 57. In senior nose tackle Kadesh Reaves’ eyes, that unit has been the defense’s biggest improvement.
“We’re starting to jell better as a group and not have as many mental mistakes as we had earlier in the year,” said Reaves, whom Roberts called the “heart and soul” of the defense and commutes from Plant City every day. “(The linebackers) get better every week but I keep telling them to listen, don’t think you know it all, that you can keep getting better.”
Reaves also said his defense “hasn’t fully showed what we can do.” Friday night would be an ideal time to add a new wrinkle or two, as TBT hosts Gaither, a team it beat just 17-14 three weeks ago with a winning field goal.
“In sports, the hardest thing to do is to beat the same team twice in one season,” Roberts said. “They’ve had a chance to see how you play, feel you guys out on the field. My guys are well aware that just because we beat this team once doesn’t mean we are going to go out and win again.”