ST. PETERSBURG — Things were not going as planned for Lakewood as it jogged to the locker room at halftime of Friday's Class 5A region semifinal against Tarpon Springs. The Spartans were supposed to be up comfortably against a team it blew out only a few weeks ago.
Instead, they nursed a two-point lead and wasted a scoring chance with 13 seconds left. Given a chance to calm down, Lakewood returned to form and defeated the Spongers 30-9 to reach its first-ever region final.
"Tarpon is a very good team, better than people think they are," Lakewood coach Cory Moore said. "We had to play very hard to beat them."
In many ways, the Spongers (7-5) outplayed Lakewood in the first half. Tarpon Springs opened the game with a 14-play drive that ended when it failed on fourth and 6 from the Lakewood 25.
After a scoreless first quarter, Lakewood (9-3) got going. It put together a five-play drive that ended when Ryan Davis hit Darquez Watson on a 23-yard touchdown pass. Joc Ellison threw to Tyrae Boykins for the two-point conversion.
The drive was kept alive thanks to pass interference on Tarpon Springs on fourth and 5.
The Spongers did not go away.
They came back with a 12-play drive kept alive when Lakewood was called for illegal participation during a punt. Given a second chance, Michael Ford made the most of it with a 52-yard run to the 1.
Montel Johnson barreled in on second and goal, but the two-point conversion failed.
Lakewood had a chance to tack on to its first-half lead with 13 second left. But Davis was intercepted in the end zone by Leonel Hernandez.
"It seemed like the guys were playing not to lose," Moore said. "You can't play that way. They were too uptight. I told them to have some fun and play ball."
The Spartans started the third quarter with a 10-play drive capped by a Davis run from a yard out. Tarpon Springs got a 47-yard field goal from Louis Zervos, but Lakewood struck again late in the third.
Donterio Fowler ripped off a 56-yard run to the 9. Two plays later, Davis scored on his second 1-yard run to make it 23-9.
The Spartans clinched the game midway through the fourth when Davis threw his second touchdown pass to Watson. This one was from 33 yards over the middle.
"We started a little slower than usual," Watson said. "I think that might have been because of the lack of competition last week (a 75-19 win over Hudson).
"It took us a while to get the running game going, but once it did, it opened the passing game up."
Tarpon Springs hurt itself with 15 penalties for 138 yards. Ford gained 149 yards on 19 carries.
Davis threw for 133 yards and two touchdowns.
"That was a defensive game all the way around," Spongers coach Ron Hawn said.
"They stopped our offense. We stopped their offense. Going into the fourth quarter, it was 23-9 and we had the ball. We had an opportunity."
While Lakewood's offense has gotten more attention during its two playoff wins, Moore said his defense has played a big part.
"Our defense was a little upset," Moore said. "They heard it was supposed to be a basketball score. They didn't want to get scored on like that. They wanted it to be more like a hockey score."