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TAMPA — Pardon the Hillsborough football team for getting reflective. On Friday, the Terriers are playing in the region semifinals for the first time since this year’s seniors were freshmen — against an Armwood team that has beaten them in seven straight meetings.
Make no mistake. The Terriers are looking forward. Practicing during Thanksgiving week is something to celebrate. And a Black Friday win over the district nemesis Hawks would mean Christmas has come early.
The Terriers (8-3) started the season with losses to Jefferson and Plant, and have won eight of nine since — the only blemish a 34-15 loss to Armwood (11-0) — but their season has come down to a few what-ifs.
If Hillsborough doesn’t block a last-second field-goal attempt against King, are the Terriers here to talk about their rematch with Armwood, or does their 27-26 playoff berth-clinching win over the Lions end differently?
“We’re not even in the playoffs now,” Hillsborough kicker/punter Mattias Ciabatti said.
And if the Terriers didn’t commit their fourth of five turnovers while driving for a score trailing 21-15 that could have taken the lead on Armwood, would they be playing this game at Chelo Huerta Field instead?
“That game was ours until a couple of mess-ups,” Ciabatti said. “They didn’t think we could come back like that. I think they expected to beat us really bad.”
Hillsborough is indeed one of the county’s most fascinating teams — a squad whose fate could have tilted dramatically on a few plays.
And the Terriers go into Friday confident as ever, boosted by special teams play that has them believing. In last week’s 41-14 win over Largo, senior Charles Lovett scored two of his three touchdowns on punt returns. The week before, the difference in their 14-13 win over Tampa Bay Tech was foiling a Titans fake extra point. And in the win over King, they blocked two kicks late.
Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia, the team’s longtime offensive coordinator, is a rookie special teams coach this year and has become immersed in the role. Special-teamers even wear camouflage military hats that read “Special Forces,” and the unit’s player of the week gets a camouflage T-shirt.
“Monday through Thursday when we work on special teams, we kind of ask ourselves why,” Lovett said. “Why work on special teams? But then on Friday nights the last couple weeks, you see all this work starting to pay off. We see why Coach G was yelling at us for being in the wrong gap. It all pays off, man.”
The Terriers also have a field position weapon in Ciabatti, who averages nearly 40 yards a punt and has put nearly half his kickoffs in the end zone.
But it’s the steadiness of quarterback Jeremy Agrinzonis that might be the difference this time around. The first-year starter had his best game against Armwood, throwing for 241 yards.
“We made him look like an All-American in that third quarter,” Armwood coach Sean Callahan said. “We’re looking to redeem ourselves on that one.”
“I started gaining a lot of confidence that game because every pass I threw was being completed,” Agrinzonis said. “The guys around me were making plays for me. I’m looking forward to playing them again.”
He followed with a four-touchdown game against King but hasn’t been the same since, including a three-interception game against TBT.
“Everything else is coming together,” Lovett said. “I keep telling our quarterback, you don’t have to win the game for us. Just do what you do best and manage it. Special teams has been coming through the last few weeks, defense is playing off the charts, so all you have to do is go out there and play your heart out and don’t turn the ball over.”