The Carrollwood Day School Patriots hit the practice field this week with a sense of excitement as palpable as the cool fall breeze. Head coach Lane McLaughlin had intentionally left the final week of his regular season schedule blank, wanting to have an extra week to prepare for a regional opponent. That opponent will be the Moore Haven Terriers, who the Patriots play tonight at Alonso High School.
McLaughlin also cleared his final week of the regular season last year, though it didn't work out the way he had planned. "I had a four-year plan when we went to 11-man football in 2008. It turned into a five-year plan," he said.
The Patriots came up just short in 2011, dropping key contests to Keswick Christian, Admiral Farragut, Canterbury and Indian Rocks Christian. And that extra week off provided a painful reminder of what might have been.
When the 2012 season rolled around, McLaughlin again left that last week open, and the Patriots set about settling scores. They shut out Keswick Christian 48-0 in the second game, on their way to outscoring their first four opponents, 161-7. But then they traveled to Admiral Farragut and could not close the deal, losing 36-29.
"I couldn't play the third and fourth quarters," said senior tailback Robert Davis, who injured his knee. "I put what happened to me aside; it wasn't just bad for me, it was bad for the team."
The loss put the Patriots behind Farragut and Indian Rocks Christian, and seemingly out of the playoff picture. Adding to the misery, Davis was sidelined and his chase for the all-time Hillsborough County rushing record was put on indefinite hold.
"We knew we just needed to hit practice hard," senior Andy Embody said. "It was pretty sad because we thought we might not have a chance to beat them (Farragut) again."
But the Patriots picked themselves up and knocked down Canterbury without Davis, then beat Bradenton Christian and Cambridge Christian with Davis playing a limited role.
The Patriots then pulled off a 28-22 victory against Indian Rocks, positioning themselves to grab a playoff spot if they beat Calvary Christian the next week.
The stars aligned for the Patriots during their Nov. 2 game against the Warriors, with Davis slashing and cutting his way to 273 yards on 33 carries and three touchdowns in a 54-28 victory.
The win put the Patriots in the playoffs and Davis back on track to break the rushing record.
The Patriots also received a gift that night when Cambridge Christian beat district-leading Admiral Farragut 68-45. That vaulted the Patriots not just into the playoffs, but to the district championship.
One difference between the 2011 and 2012 Patriots is depth.
"We had 29 players this year as opposed to 22 from last year," McLaughlin said. "It allowed us to have real practices every day."
The senior talent on the CDS roster was no secret. There was Davis chasing the rushing record; Embody stepping up wherever and whenever he was needed; Nate Lewis battling through multiple injuries to contribute; 6-foot-3 Dominic Sicardo catching four touchdown passes, running the ball out of the wildcat formation and blocking on the line; and offensive linemen Jarrod Smith, Adam Morse and Colin DeBosier opening holes for Davis.
But the new additions and emerging players helped push CDS over the top. Leading the way was senior quarterback Vidal Woodruff, who filled the huge void that four-year starter Deuce Gruden left behind. Woodruff passed for more than 1,600 yards this year, along with an impressive 23-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
"He (Woodruff) has got a nice arm and a feel for the game and he's learned to get even tougher playing defense," McLaughlin said.
It didn't hurt that Woodruff, Davis, and Lewis were already good friends. Woodruff has added 14 tackles and an interception on the other side of the football.
"He (Woodruff) sees the game from both sides of the football now," McLaughlin said.
A couple of CDS sophomores filled key roles on the team. Elias Early has proven to be a versatile starting defensive back and backup running back, while Max Frankel has stepped into a fullback role on offense and kind of a roving linebacker/defensive back hybrid on defense.
Together, they have picked up an additional 51 carries for 276 yards on offense and more than 100 total tackles on defense. Add in three interceptions and 5.5 sacks by Frankel and you have a huge contribution that was nonexistent in the Patriots' 2011 campaign.
"Defense has been the difference this year," McLaughlin said.
Defensive coordinator Sal Cuono didn't change schemes or blitz packages for this year's Red Reign defense. The Patriots typically play Peter Gabriel's Red Rain at home games when they need a defensive stop. Cuono credits the players for "conditioning themselves more," and for defensive backs coach Jarrett Osler working them out all summer.
"You can feel it in the kids about playing the game," Cuono said. "They want to learn and to win."
Cuono's son, junior Dominic Cuono, has also boosted the defense, with a team-leading 104 tackles, along with 3.5 sacks.
Finally, the Patriots have benefitted from the right foot of freshman kicker Stephen Yaffe, who converted 50 of 53 extra points this season.
The Patriots have so much to play for when they take the field Friday night at Alonso High School. Davis is 91 yards from the rushing record, and the seniors are in the midst of leaving their legacy at CDS.
They also have a score to settle with the Terriers.
Senior Jarrod Smith, who played at CDS as an eighth-grader, remembers a 38-0 drubbing at the hands of the Terriers back in 2008.
"All these years, I'm thinking we will never get another shot at those guys," Smith said. "Now I get to have my revenge and it's five years in the making."