GIBSONTON — After eight weeks of the 2013 football season, here's something different:
East Bay is relevant.
Reporters are hanging around.
The mood is bright.
There is talk of playoffs.
This is new. This is fresh.
"Gotta love it," said linebacker Christian Leto, who doesn't even take his helmet off for the interview because, as he will scream to his teammates in a few moments while jumping around, he's ready to hit someone.
Heads up, folks.
Tonight in Dover, East Bay will take on Strawberry Crest in a battle of district unbeatens.
The Chargers have gotten here with a mix of strong defense and running, and one of the most productive passing attacks in the area.
East Bay has gotten here with, well, hmmm. How has East Bay gotten here?
"How are we 5-2?" says barrel-chested coach Frank LaRosa, his sleeveless red shirt revealing the kind of pythons a professional wrestler might be a little jealous of. "That's a good question."
• • •
The Indians needed a late rally then missed a field goal in the first overtime but survived the second overtime to beat Riverview 26-20.
An interception by Kevin Sails in the end zone in the final minute secured a 14-6 victory over winless Spoto.
And a botched punt led to a 13-12 win over Bloomingdale last week.
Hardly Murderer's Row, but that's pretty much how East Bay got here.
But it may not really explain why East Bay got here.
"These kids are finding a way to win, finding a way not to let adversity and some of those setbacks in a four-quarter football game get to them and affect them," said LaRosa. "Is it winning ugly? Yeah. It's winning ugly. But it's winning."
This penchant for winning close ones, too, is new and fresh.
In LaRosa's first two seasons, East Bay lost 12 times, and five were by eight points or fewer.
"We've been in a lot of close games the last few years, and each and every time we've fallen in those games," said quarterback Chris Carpentier. "We seem to have adapted to that clutch role now."
But Carpentier said he and his teammates aren't embracing the whole winning ugly thing.
"We don't take pride in it," he said.
The 6-foot-6 senior said on some Friday nights, after a typical East Bay win, he and other seniors and captains will sit around and think about how it "doesn't feel right."
When he watched film Saturday morning of the win over Bloomingdale, in which East Bay gained only 124 total yards, he said he was disgusted.
"One hundred and 20 yards, you shouldn't be able to win a football game," he said.
The amazing part to Carpentier, he said, is the Indians are far better than this, but just haven't played like it — especially on offense — yet.
"We're not clicking and we're winning," he said. "If we ever get going on all four cylinders, it could be ugly."
And that is the kind of ugly the quarterback would gladly embrace.
• • •
LaRosa said because his team beat Riverview in two overtimes, it was prepared to beat Plant City when that game went to overtime a few weeks later, by far the Indians' biggest win of the season.
At the time, the Raiders were a clear-cut district favorite, 4-0 and averaging 28 points a game.
East Bay shut them down in a 19-13 win behind the team's best quality — a relentless defense.
Potential Division I recruit Marques Ford rushes the quarterback from one end and Eric Latortue from the other, a group of linebackers led by Deondre Romeo and Leto fly around the line of scrimmage, and an underrated defensive backfield with underappreciated defenders like Anton Crutcher, Christian Angulo and Sails have locked down most opponents.
You can pick on an East Bay offense that has passed for only 393 yards and averages 4.1 yards a carry, but the defense has countered by allowing only 101 yards passing and 110 rushing per game.
"The defense," Leto said, "is like the offense's big brother."
• • •
How big is tonight's game?
Plenty big. The Indians say they can't remember a bigger one, and it has been a while.
In 1973, the only time the Indians won a district title, they played their playoff game at Brandon to accommodate a large crowd, but lost.
In 1998, they were 9-0 heading into the season finale but lost to Armwood. Because the Indians played an independent schedule that year, no playoffs were involved.
In 2001, the Indians played Lakeland for the district title in a game then-head coach Brian Thornton called the biggest in East Bay history. The Dreadnaughts won that one.
East Bay has three district games remaining so nothing can be decided tonight, except first place.
But a win would be another big step toward the postseason and ending a 40-year district title drought. And it would turn another page as LaRosa works toward building a yearly contender.
Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.
"If it's ugly or pretty, if we walk away with one more point than they have, then we did what we had to do," LaRosa said.
John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.