TAMPA — Tampa Catholic, fresh off a Week 1 loss to Madison County, had just scored a third-quarter touchdown to tie a Sept. 6 game against Clearwater Central Catholic at 7. With seconds left on the clock, the Crusaders attempted a 54-yard field goal to break the tie once and for all. It was wide right.
The Crusaders convened on the sideline moments before overtime. They were hyped up. That’s when quarterback Kyle Ploucher knew; that night wasn’t going to end with a loss, and neither was their season.
“Every team starts out thinking they’re going to win a state championship. We know,” Ploucher said. “It’s happening.”
Seven weeks after its overtime victory against CCC — an early turning point for the Crusaders, Ploucher says — Tampa Catholic sits atop Florida’s Class 3A rankings, its state title dreams still very much alive.
Boasting a handful of Division I recruits, the Crusaders (6-1, 3-0) appear to have what it takes to go all the way. First-year coach Mike Gregory insists his team’s potential rests on something far more intangible.
Last season, Ploucher periodically invited teammates to his house for afternoons of team togetherness. About 10 Crusaders would show up, mostly offensive players. During the offseason the quarterback extended another invitation. This time, the whole team arrived at his doorstep.
Now the team gathers at Ploucher’s house every few weeks. They eat his mother’s cooking, shoot pool, watch NFL games. It might not be a novel concept, but Ploucher is certain off-the-field bonding has made all the difference.
Tampa Catholic was on the brink of its first district loss last Friday when the benefit of his team’s closeness became apparent to Gregory. The offense had sputtered all night, but when they had to his Crusaders worked together to quickly score the winning touchdown.
“Last year, if we had been challenged by Berkeley late in the fourth quarter like that I don’t know if we make that drive,” Gregory said. “The guys trusted in each other, and they trusted in what we were supposed to do.”
The Crusaders took last week’s game against Berkeley Prep too lightly in the early going, Ploucher admits. It’s a mistake they can’t make again — especially with district foe Lakeland Christian (6-1, 2-1) coming to town.
Tampa Catholic would seal a district championship if it can stop the high-scoring Vikings — a team that has put at least 27 points on the board in five of its seven games.
Beating Lakeland Christian and winning its first district title since 2009 would be a step in the right direction for the Crusaders. But as far as Division I recruit T.J. Harrell is concerned, a win would simply be a steppingstone on the way to his team’s greater destiny.
“We all feel that TC can make it all the way. We know we can,” he said. “It’s the heart we have. A lot of teams have the talent. A lot of teams have the coaching. But it starts with the heart.”