DADE CITY — It's nestled inconspicuously in rural central Florida, just off U.S. Highway 301, in an outpost called Citra. Geographically, it's a little southeast of Gainesville. From a figurative football standpoint, it appears to be in the same area code as Pasco. North Marion High, the Pirates' opponent in Friday's Class 3A region final, can match Pasco athlete-for-athlete on paper, but brings more playoff experience.
Yet that only scratches the surface on what we know about the 9-3 Colts. In an effort to uncover any and all interesting North Marion nuggets, we've dug, delved and even dialed (please, coach Craig Damon, call us back). The following is what we've learned:
When asked for some Colts players to watch, Pasco coach Tom McHugh first mentioned "No. 2 and No. 24." The first is 5-foot-10 quarterback Chuckie Looney (1,176 passing yards, nine TDs). The latter, 5-8, 170-pound tailback Eddie Rocker, is coming off a career game (275 rushing yards, four TDs) in last week's 49-7 humiliation of Williston. Despite missing four games with a hamstring injury, he still has run for 1,365 yards on 155 carries (8.8 yards per carry). "Looney's a good quarterback," McHugh said. "One of the kids who was watching (tape) … said he's like a college quarterback."
Among those who have caught McHugh's eyes on tape are 215-pound linebacker Laroyal Beard (132 tackles, 31/2 sacks) and cornerback Jordan Fulford (team-high five interceptions). Like any team still playing at this time of year, the Colts appear sizeable up front — 240-pound tackle Courtland Thomas has nine sacks — and speedy in the backfield.
Certainly the most recognizable name on North Marion's roster is 5-foot-7 two-way star Shaquille Neal, who leads the team with 27 catches for 601 yards. We just wonder if he can dunk.
Down the stretch
The Colts appear to be playing their best football when it counts the most. They enter W.F. Edwards Stadium on a six-game win streak and have outscored their two playoff foes 91-7. Their 49-7 thumping of Williston came only three weeks after a 21-19 regular-season win against the Red Devils. "You want to start peaking at this time of the season," North Marion coach Craig Damon told the Ocala Star-Banner after last week's Williston triumph. "You want to work all those kinks out and get to where you're executing on both sides of the football. Two weeks in a row now we've executed on both sides of the ball and on special teams."
Strength of schedule
A down year for football in Marion and Alachua counties is reflected in the Colts' schedule. The combined record of North Marion's 11 opponents (it played Williston twice) is 49-63 (a .438 winning percentage). Four foes made the playoffs. By comparison, the collective record of Pasco's opposition is 52-61 (.460). The teams have no common opponent.
The Colts never have won a state title, but are making their fourth consecutive region finals appearance. In the previous three finals, they've outscored their opposition by a combined 87-11 including a 42-0 rout of Hudson in 2005.
Best all-time player
The nod probably goes to FSU senior receiver Greg Carr (31 catches, 464 yards this season), though 2001 graduate Jamie Thompson starred at safety at Oklahoma State and later had a cup of coffee with the New York Jets.