High school basketball season could start in earnest Monday. A continuation of this football season rests squarely on Countryside, the last team playing in Pinellas County.
At 12-0, the Cougars go into tonight's Class 5A quarterfinal rematch at Dads Stadium as decided underdogs against Plant, the defending state champion that also won it all in 2006 and 2008 in Class 4A. The Panthers (10-2) have been playing their best ball of the season recently and are renowned for their late-season improvement and performance.
Do the Cougars have a chance?
Of course they do. And a good one at that. They have a punishing offensive line, speedy running backs, and a defense that has been underrated all season.
Can it be done? Yes.
Well, read on.
Plant's Phillip Ely, an Alabama commitment, has had a rough going against the better defenses, including a midseason three-game stretch where he threw 10 interceptions, but he appears to have smoothed things out. In two postseason games, he is averaging 325 yards passing and has thrown eight touchdowns and just one pick. Countryside's Gray Crow has been less prolific, but in his past three games, he is 30-for-46 for 422 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Countryside's Diomi Roberts (1,269 yards) and Terry Johnson (742) have combined for 33 touchdowns, and fullback Ryan Yates has seven, but Plant's James Wilder Jr. is an All-American that has been known to take over games, especially in the postseason, and is well rested (23 carries the past two games) for tonight. Also keep an eye on Calvin Mann.
Neither team has a standout, just a solid group of unsung pass catchers. Plant's Austin Aikens (22 yards a catch, six TDs) might be the best of the lot and leads the Panthers, who have four receivers with more than 400 yards and three with at least six touchdowns. Countryside has one with almost 400 yards receiving, Nico Morgado (393 yards, two TDs).
Though a bit undersized, Plant's line is quick and can get after the quarterback. The Panthers' Michael Dvornik, Nathan Schnitzlein and Devin Zinkosky have each recorded at least six sacks. Countryside's linemen have been steady despite not putting up spectacular numbers. Mike Love leads the Cougars in sacks with eight, but you can expect to see the Tylers — Moore and Pierson — on defense in an effort to stop Wilder.
Countryside's Terry Johnson and Adam Vinson are two of Pinellas County's top linebackers and will be counted on heavily in run support. The Panthers might have more depth, with six linebackers who have registered at least 40 tackles this season. The wild card is Wilder, who doesn't play full time on defense but still has put up solid numbers (51 tackles, eight sacks).
Countryside's big strength. Nebraska commitment Tyler Moore and Tyler Pierson are forces on the line at tackle, and 6-foot-5, 300-pounder Jeff Albert beefs up the middle. Plant's line is anchored by Michigan recruit Tony Posada, but the Panthers also possess great size and strength.
Both teams are solid here. Denzel Thompson has been a revelation for Countryside, and his seven interceptions lead Pinellas County. Tyler Serpo had four, and North Carolina recruit Alex Dixon has two, though teams rarely throw at him. Here's the week's most interesting stat: Countryside has given up only five touchdown passes, three of them in blowout situations, and allowed a paltry 212 passing yards combined in the past five games. Plant's Eric Patterson is a shutdown guy, and Caleb Hazely and Drew Madhu are budding stars.
Plant's Robert Weiner has set the standard for bay area coaches, winning two straight state titles and three in the past four years. His staff may be the best in Tampa Bay. Jared Davis is a first-year coach who took over a Countryside program that graduated 32 seniors yet still led the Cougars to their first undefeated regular season.
Both kickers get plenty of work thanks to their high-scoring offenses. Plant's Grant Van Aman has 39 point-afters and three field goals. Countryside's Ryan Halter has 35 point-afters and six field goals. Halter has good range and can connect from 50 yards and beyond.
One key point
The turnover battle: The turning point in last year's game came in the third quarter when Countryside lost a fumble that Plant returned inside the 10-yard line. Moments later the Cougars watched their 10-9 lead disappear as the Panthers scored a touchdown to take the lead for good. The fumble was one of four the Cougars lost in that game. Countryside has done a good job with its turnover ratio in the playoffs and will need to continue that in tonight's game to have a chance to win.
John C. Cotey
Cody Chmelik, Dixon, Serpo, and Thompson: Listen, you don't need WikiLeaks to know that Wilder must be stopped. But do that, then expect Ely to throw 25-30 times. That will put a lot of pressure on the Countryside defensive backs, who will have to help with both. They've been up to the challenge all season, though Pinellas County is hardly a haven for innovative offenses. Though he has played better recently, Ely has made a lot of mistakes (12 interceptions) this season, and a few more would keep him from getting into a rhythm, when he's most dangerous.
By the numbers
Passing yards Countryside has allowed in its past five games:
Tampa Bay Tech 67
East Lake 44
Palm Harbor University 47
Putnam: Countryside 27-21. The Cougars match up well against Plant and will use their size up front on both sides of the ball.
Cotey: Plant 27-10. Why?
1. Plant is at home. Countryside hasn't been in an environment like this. It's different. Really.
2. If quarterback is the most important position, and it probably is, Plant has a significant edge, especially when it comes to playing, and winning, gigantic playoff games.
3. Plant has a much more balanced offense. If it can't run, it can pass. If it can't pass, it can run. Can Countryside say that?
4. Plant has a game changer in Wilder, and he can do it on either side of the ball. I don't think Plant is a better team athlete for athlete, but I don't see that one guy on Countryside's side that can alter a game with one play.
5. Countryside has played plodding offenses the past five weeks. It gets really fast this week. How long will it take the Cougars to get up to speed, and will it be too late when they do?
6. Plant's coaching staff is the best in the business at this point of the season. Fact.