St. Petersburg and Largo are the oldest schools in the county and have played football for more than 75 years. Both programs have had success, but their paths have never crossed at quite the right time. Until now. Tonight, the Green Devils (9-2) travel to play the Packers (10-1) in a Class 5A region semifinal. It's not just the biggest game in the county, it is the only game. After all, these are the only teams from Pinellas left in the playoffs. At stake is a berth in next week's region final and the chance for one team to keep its season alive. The game will be a matter of matchups and emotions, of strategies and split-second decisions. These factors will determine the outcome.
In a rush
Both teams' calling card on offense is the running game. The Green Devils like to keep their backs fresh and happy by spreading the workload. On one drive against Dunedin last week, six running backs carried the ball. The big banger for the Green Devils is fullback Ben Sams, who powered his way for more than 900 yards in the regular season. But the star in last week's playoff game was Malik Wilson, who scored twice. Largo has built a tradition of running the ball with two backs (Dexter McCluster and Brynn Harvey) who gained more than 2,000 yards in a season over the past three years. This year, the workload belongs to Marcel Durham, who had a breakthrough performance against Countryside last week with 174 yards and five touchdowns.
Both teams are among the best in the county at keeping opponents off the board. St. Petersburg gave up 82 points during the regular season while Largo allowed 83. Each team has a ferocious pass rush, quick linebackers and skilled defensive backs. What's more, they can create big plays. Last week, the Green Devils forced six fumbles and recovered three in a win against Dunedin. The Packers recovered only one fumble against Countryside last week but have turned in game-changing plays all season. Perhaps Largo's biggest plays came in a 17-16 regular-season victory against St. Petersburg in which defensive back Jason Wine recorded two interceptions.
The regular-season meeting was decided by one point, so special teams could be a factor. St. Petersburg is solid in the kicking game with punter Andy Rosetti and kicker Devon Papandrew. Last week against Dunedin, Papandrew made two field goals. Largo's Charles Howe became a dependable kicker as the season went on. The Packers also excel in the return game with Marcel Durham, Myrick Gwynn and Mike Lang capable of going the distance or racing in to block a kick.
The passing game
St. Petersburg's Chris Winiecki does not throw often. But he can produce big plays when he takes to the air as evidenced by his 56-yard completion to Malik Wilson against Dunedin last week. Largo quarterback Ryan Eppes has the ability to dodge the rush and find receivers at the last possible moment. He has two game-breakers at receiver in Mike Lang and Myrick Gwynn. Last week, Lang had a touchdown reception and Gwynn caught a pass that set up another score.
Packers Stadium has become a tough place to play. Largo has won 23 of its past 24 games at home. The lone loss came in last season's state semifinals to eventual champion Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas. This year, the Packers gave up just 28 points in five regular-season games, including consecutive shutouts against East Lake and Palm Harbor University to open the season.