TAMPA — Tampa Catholic figures it had to be nothing short of a miracle.
With the final minutes winding down Friday on the Class 2A region final, the host Crusaders clung to a 3-0 lead against Mulberry. They had given the ball back with punt after punt from Matt McLaughlin. The punter and kicker had the lone score with a 38-yard field goal on the first drive of the game.
The game-changing play came courtesy of defensive lineman Michael Aguila. As Mulberry quarterback Tony Brown went back to pass, his hand was tipped and the ball fell into Aguila's hands. Aguila, 270 pounds, rumbled 30 yards into the end zone for the winning score. It was Aguila's first touchdown and interception, and it propelled the Crusaders to a 10-0 win and into the 2A state semifinals for the second straight year.
"I was just happy I held onto the ball," said Aguila, who wasn't expected to play this season when he was misdiagnosed with a hip pointer before the season. "I really wasn't worried about scoring, but at the end there I felt like a running back."
Tampa Catholic (9-3) had nothing going on offense. Quarterback Christian Green (7-of-13 passing, 56 yards, 28 rushing yards) and running back Henry McCloud (19 carries, 47 yards) had quiet games.
As expected, it was a game of defenses. The Crusaders put up their fourth shutout and forced three of the four turnovers by the Panthers (8-5): two interceptions and a fumble recovery, while Mulberry's Jerrell Carr, the game's leading rusher with 111 yards, couldn't field a punt in the second quarter.
"The defense has been good two years in a row," Tampa Catholic coach Bob Henriquez said. "I don't know why we weren't in synch offensively. We can be better."
Tampa Catholic could only get to Mulberry's 15, also missing two fields goals (32, 48 yards).
The bad blood between the teams earlier in the season, when the players refused to shake hands after a 24-14 Crusaders win, didn't surface Friday night.