When his star running back Ray Ray McCloud was nursing nagging knee and hip injuries in mid October, Sickles High School coach Brian Turner wasn't as focused on it then as he is now.
Now as in November. Now as in playoff time.
Turner said in October a close evaluation of McCloud's injuries would determine how much he played down the stretch. McCloud was fine, and he was let loose on opposing defenses during the last month of the season to complete a bay area-best 1,931-rushing yard regular season with 22 touchdowns.
Now McCloud, along with quarterback Isaac Holder and a solid Gryphons defense, have won the program's first district crown and open the Class 7A postseason at home against Plant City.
Three other North Tampa-area squads, all of them no stranger to the postseason, open the playoffs on the road.
In Class 2A, Carrollwood Day School visits Naples First Baptist, hoping to avoid a repeat of their 2012 postseason meeting, as is 8A Wharton, which is traveling to play Orlando Dr. Phillips for the third straight year. And, in Class 7A, Gaither, which suffered a blowout loss in the opening round of the playoffs a year ago, heads to Gibsonton top lay a scrappy East Bay team playing in the postseason for the first time since 2005.
All kickoffs are scheduled for Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Carrollwood Day School (7-3) at Naples First Baptist (9-1)
Last week: CDS was off. First Baptist was off.
Last playoffs: CDS lost 56-28 to First Baptist in the 2012 Class 2A regional finals; First Baptist lost to Dade Christian 27-23 in the 2012 2A state semifinals.
Why you should go: To see if Carrollwood Day's defense can slow down First Baptist this year. The Patriots are back in the playoffs for the second straight year behind its offense, mainly due to the play of QB Taylor King, who threw for 1,958 yards and 18 TDs. Wide receiver Michael Smith (42 receptions for 1,017 yards and 10 TDs) will get plenty of looks from King. In First Baptist, the Patriots will face a team with an equally stout offense. The 2A-6 champion Lions, ranked fifth in the final Class 2A regular season state poll, scored more than 50 points four times this season. Sophomore QB Tyler Dean, who threw for 15 TDs this season and RB Christian Rodriguez (966 yards, 15 TDs), make the Lions offense go.
Wharton (7-3) at Orlando Dr. Phillips (10-0)
Last week: Wharton was off; Dr. Phillips defeated Winter Park 38-7.
Last playoffs: Wharton lost 28-15 to Dr. Phillips in the 2012 Class 8A quarterfinals; Dr. Phillips lost to Apopka in the 2012 8A state semifinals.
Why you should go: Because you can always go across the street to Universal Studios if the game doesn't go Wharton's way. Wharton is no stranger to Dr. Phillips and will be trying to avoid having its season end at the Panthers' stadium for the third straight year. It will be a tough task as the unbeaten and 4th-ranked Panthers' closest contest this year was a 21-6 win back in September. Other than that contest, Dr. Phillips topped 35 points in all its games and enjoyed a 34-point average margin of victory. Dr. Phillips' playmakers RB Kerry Bernard, RB Deionte Gaines and WR Roderick Proctor combined for almost 3,000 yards of offense this year. Wharton will counter with QB Chase Litton and RB Jeff Keil, who posted 800 yards and 10 TDs this season. The Wildcats' offense will have to get ahead early and score often.
Plant City (8-2) at Sickles (9-1)
Last week: Plant City beat Gaither 28-20; Sickles defeated Alonso 34-30.
Last playoffs: Both teams are making their first playoff appearances since 2010.
Why you should go: Because Ray Ray McCloud topped 200 yards in a game five times this season — although that may be tough against a solid Plant City defense that only gave up 13 points per game. Meanwhile on offense, the Raiders have outstanding players in University of Central Florida commit QB Landon Galloway, RB Sterling Day and receiving tandem of Markese Hargrove and T.J. Chase. The Gryphons, meanwhile, will do what they do best — run McCloud, get solid quarterback play from Isaac Holder and play defense. That formula helped Sickles score more than 30 points seven times this season and come within a whisper of defeating Plant during their regular season showdown.
Gaither (5-5) at East Bay (7-3)
Last week: Gaither lost to Plant City 28-20; East Bay was off.
Last playoffs: Gaither lost 52-7 to Newsome in the 2012 Class 7A quarterfinals. East Bay is making its first playoff appearance since 2005.
Why you should go: To see which Gaither team shows up. The roller coaster Cowboys have been very good this season (a 14-10 upset win against Tampa Bay Tech) and very bad (a 48-6 loss to Sickles). Gaither's fortunes will lie with QB Alex McGough. The Cowboys tend to go as the Florida International University commit goes, evidenced by McGough's leading the Cowboys in both passing and rushing. Meanwhile, the Indians survived a three-way district tiebreaker with Plant City and Strawberry Crest to earn a district title and return to the playoffs for the first time in eight years. The Indians will lean on QB Chris Carpentier and RB Chris Greene. And then there's this nugget for Gaither fans — East Bay has never won a playoff game (0-6 all-time).