When John Palmer came back to coach his alma mater, this is what he envisioned:
Being King of the County.
Or, in other words, tonight.
"The biggest thing in coming back was trying to revive the pride that Hernando has in its athletic program and its football team," said Palmer, a 1983 Hernando grad. "These are the games that you wanna be a part of. It's a meaningful game, and it's been a long time since Hernando had a game of this importance in November.
Palmer's Leopards will host Nature Coast at Tom Fisher Stadium in what can rightfully be called the biggest intracounty game in Hernando County history, if not the biggest and most anticipated game ever.
At stake: everything.
"Bragging rights are on the line. The county championship is on the line. The playoffs are on the line. It's huge," said Nature Coast first-year coach Mark Lee, whose team has to win to either force a three-way tie (if Crystal River wins) or grab the runnerup spot in 3A-6 (if Crystal River loses).
With a win, Hernando (6-2) clinches its first playoff spot since 2005. A loss and a Crystal River win sends it to Nature Coast (6-2) Monday for the tiebreaker.
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The biggest game in county history?
Well, that honor probably belongs to any number of Hernando-Pasco games over the years. The Leopards and Pirates had the North Suncoast's hottest rivalry for years, dating to 1925 when Hernando won the first meeting 20-0, though it has noticeably dimmed in recent years.
In 1992, Pasco beat Hernando 28-10 in arguably the best game of the series. In a battle for the district title before 5,000 fans, Hernando led 10-7 over the No. 1-ranked Pirates, only to fall in a second-half rally and lose 28-10. But that game was in Dade City.
Ironically, Palmer's late father, Willard "Dub" Palmer, coached on both sides of the rivalry — as Hernando's head coach from 1978-1983 and as a Pasco assistant in the 1950s.
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Both teams are playing their best football of the season.
After a midseason dip (losses to Crystal River and Dunnellon and the failure to put away lesser teams as in the past) that Lee said was partly due to him being "overbearing" and trying to run too many different offensive formations, the Sharks have rebounded.
The past two games, with a pared down playbook and smash-mouth mentality, Nature Coast has outscored opponents 102-0.
Faced with a must-win situation against a team threatening their county dominance amid whispers they aren't as good as in recent years, Lee thinks the Sharks are right in the position they thrive in.
"Right now, everything we've heard is how good (Hernando) is and they are going to beat us and take over the county as the top team, so to an extent we feel we're coming in as the underdog and the kids are a little fired up about that," Lee said.
The Leopards, after a rocky start that saw them get blown out by Pasco in the preseason and lose a close game to Springstead to open the season, have won four straight, all by double digits.
Palmer credits a multitude of players, particularly those on defense, from leading tackler Zac Pritz (56 tackles), safety Corey Thomas (52 tackles), defensive tackle Robert Huggins (12 tackles for losses) and defensive end Matt Johnson (5.5 sacks).
"They have really been our backbone," Palmer said.
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The key matchup tonight?
The offensive lines.
Whichever can open the widest lanes for Nature Coast running back Tevin Drake (1,206 yards, 16 touchdowns) and Hernando's Alvin Delaine (1,185 yards, 18 touchdowns) will have a huge advantage.
Both teams rely heavily on their running games, but Hernando — winners of four straight — relies on it most. While Nature Coast has quarterback C.J. Baker (twice as many passing yards and touchdowns as anyone else in the county), Hernando has only thrown for 217 yards, and 151 of those yards have been to Delaine out of the backfield.
"Whoever plays best up front will have the advantage," Palmer said.
Right now, a slight edge goes to Nature Coast. In the past two weeks, the Sharks have run for 788 yards and Drake seems to have his mojo back.
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Expect a big crowd. Lots of noise. A bit of braggadaccio on both sidelines.
"It's obviously important for playoffs, and that's out No. 1 goal," Lee said. "Within the county, this is to regain our (title) …or rather, to claim it again. We're the defending champs and now we have a good challenger and lot of people feel they might be best team in the county. We're going to find out."
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org