One sign of success in nearly every high school football locker room is the card board.
Teams tack the business cards of the college coaches who have come through to recruit onto a cork board, forming a mosaic of logos of some of the nation's top Division I programs. One glance at the logos speaks to the breadth of talent within a program.
When Tampa Bay Tech coach C.C. Culpepper took over a program two years ago that had lost 22 straight games, that card board was nearly empty.
"It was thin," said Culpepper, looking at a board now displaying about 50 cards, including ones from Florida, Florida State, LSU, Purdue, Michigan State, Wake Forest and even one from Miami coach Randy Shannon. "There were maybe three cards on there."
Culpepper tells the story about one major Division I coach who had marked TBT off his schools to visit list because the coach's office was a mess on his last visit several years ago.
"He didn't know where to sit," Culpepper said. "It wasn't only the physical part, but looking at the kids, it was a mess."
Now the Titans (7-1, 2-1) head into Friday's Class 4A, District 11 finale with the opportunity to clinch a district runnerup spot and their first postseason berth since 2001. But the team that stands in their way is one rich in tradition, a Hillsborough team clinging to a 10-year postseason streak.
Across Interstate 275 in central Tampa, expectations are much different. While TBT hopes to crash the playoff party for the first time in seven years, Hillsborough is expected to make the playoffs.
In fact, the Terriers' 6-3 (2-1 district) record going into Friday's game is a mini-disaster. Hillsborough, plagued by turnovers, lost by 39 to district champ Armwood, 27 to Chamberlain and 16 to Plant. Although all of those teams are state title contenders, that's not good enough to stop the whispers.
"At Hillsborough, you're supposed to win every game," said Earl Garcia, who has led the Terriers to the playoffs 14 out of his 15 years as head coach. "You always hear the talk, but we only focus on the things we can control. The criticism comes with every loss. At Hillsborough, you're not supposed to lose 7-6, let alone 40-7."
Last year, TBT had an opportunity to pave its path to the playoffs. Wins in its final district games — against Middleton and Hillsborough — would qualify them. But the Titans lost both, and the Terriers' streak remained intact.
Last year, both games were on the road. This year, they're both at home, and TBT took care of business in last week's 35-7 win over Middleton.
"The difference this year is we're more focused, and I think that's what's going to pull out this game for us," Titans senior cornerback D.D. Johnson said. "It's a wonderful feeling because we know we don't have to depend on anybody to win for us. We control our own destiny. We would be a part of history. That's what we're trying to make here."
In January, when programs begin offseason conditioning, coaches had important talks with their players.
At Tampa Bay Tech: "Coach has been telling us since then that it can be our year," Johnson said.
At Hillsborough: "We've talked about the legacy here since January, who's worn the jersey before you," Garcia said.
But on Friday — despite their different pasts — they'll both be facing a do-or-die game for the chance to go to the postseason.
"They've got a lot of talent and they produce a lot of college athletes, but Friday night all that won't matter," Johnson said. "I would say we feel like we're underdogs because they're big, bad Hillsborough. They have the history. Everyone knows about Tech being 0-22, but I have confidence in us."