Sunday, March 18, 2018

Column: History hovers over Tampa Catholic-Jesuit matchup


Tampa Catholic High School has more Division I recruits, more wins and a far better chance to make a deep playoff run.

Heck, some are saying the Crusaders have a pretty good chance of playing for a state football championship next month.

They have the more experienced quarterback, a more explosive offense and a better defense.

They played a tougher schedule and beat better teams.

So stop me if you've heard this before:

This looks like the year the Crusaders, ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 3A, finally snap their losing streak against archrival Jesuit.

The Tigers have beaten Tampa Catholic 13 straight times, and 34 times out of 44.

But mostly, 13 straight times.

While new Crusader coach Mike Gregory is well aware of the streak, which dates to 1999, he'd rather not think about it.

More so, he'd rather his players not think about it.

"It's a football game. In years past since I've been here (four years), we've hyped it up to be a little more than that," said Gregory. "But it's just a football game."

Practice has been loose. Most of the talk about Jesuit takes place in the school hallways and among the faculty. Gregory thinks he has convinced his team to stop sweating it.

As an assistant coach the previous four seasons, he has seen the Crusaders crumble in many different ways. But while former coach Bob Henriquez embraced the Jesuit game as a private school Super Bowl, Gregory seems more content leaving the game as a small school, season-ending playoff tuneup.

No pressure there.

"The streak has forced us to probably press a little, forced our kids to probably tighten up in situations they shouldn't have," he said. "Some of the stuff that's happened, the streak has a little something to do with it."

But there is some good news for Tampa Catholic heading into Friday's game: Parker Clonts has graduated.

Last year, his team trailing 3-0 late in the third quarter, the Jesuit linebacker recovered a fumble by TJ Harrell in the end zone, leading to a 17-3 win.

In 2010, a snap over the punter's head gave Jesuit a 21-18 lead, but it was Clonts returning a fumble for a 19-yard score on the next series that really buried the Crusaders.

Those plays, probably more than any others, have defined this series in recent times, where the biggest Jesuit plays are usually the result of the biggest Tampa Catholic turnovers and mistakes.

The closer the Crusaders get to winning, the darker the welt left on the program's psyche.

"We're not letting that in our head this year," said senior offensive lineman and FSU commitment Corey Martinez. "We've lost 13, so it's there, but it has to motivate us to do better."

• • •

In 2011, the Crusaders scored first but couldn't stop Tommy Eveld, who completed his first 10 passes.

In 2006, 2008 and 2009, the score was tied at halftime, but fumbles and field goals off the post and long kickoff returns led to Jesuit wins.

In 2007, Tampa Catholic rallied to tie things at 28 with 42 seconds left, but the biggest kick in the gut in this series was delivered by a kid they nicknamed the Polish Wonder, as Adam Perhosky's 48-yard field goal won another one for the Tigers.

Five times since 2004 the Crusaders entered the game with at least eight wins, and lost to Jesuit teams with records of 6-3 (twice), 5-4 and 4-5.

"I don't believe in curses," said Gregory, but the bouncing ball the past few years in this series will test any coach's beliefs.

In his first season, Gregory has steered his team to an 8-1 record, including wins over Clearwater Central Catholic (which beat Jesuit), and district foes Fort Meade and Berkeley Prep.

In the process, his team has developed into a state title contender.

Lifetime, he is 0-0 against Jesuit, and do you really inherit a losing streak?

"I probably wouldn't even think about the streak if it didn't get brought up every five minutes on campus," Gregory said.

You want pressure, says Tampa Catholic linebacker Harrell, look at Jesuit.

Tigers coach Matt Thompson has clearly inherited Tampa Bay's most famous win streak.

The architect of one of the state's best defenses at Armwood, his first year at Jesuit has required some rebuilding, and a rough start, though the playoff-bound Tigers have now quietly won five straight.

"Pressure?" Harrell said, smirking. "That's where the pressure is. They want to keep that streak going. We're just treating this like a regular, old game."

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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