ZEPHYRHILLS — Zephyrhills had the ball — but not the lead — with just a little more than a minute left in Friday's game. Pasco players on the sideline clustered together, hunching forward.
"This is our last play," one of them repeated a few times. "Just this."
The Bulldogs turned the ball over on a fourth down a few seconds later, and the Pirates started to cheer.
Pasco's disappointing season suddenly turned around with a 24-16 to triumph in the 9-Mile War. The victory gives the Pirates the runnerup spot in Class 5A, District 6 — and sends them to the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year.
"I've got nothing but pride," said coach Tom McHugh, who has been with the team since 2007. "We've faced a lot of adversity this year."
Many people wrote off the team after early losses against Sunlake and Nature Coast. McHugh said players made mistakes in those games that they aren't making now, and it's a different team going into the postseason.
Pasco (6-3, 4-2) will play its first-round game at North Marion on Nov. 15.
Defense was key against the Bulldogs (7-2, 4-2), McHugh said. Malik Johns agreed, saying the unit pulled together to stop a critical Zephyrhills rushing game.
"We came together as a family and got it done," Johns said.
Johns had a 61-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, sealing Pasco's win. The senior has scored 15 touchdowns this season.
"We ride him," McHugh said of Johns. "If he doesn't have a good game, we don't have a good game."
The Pirates never let the Bulldogs take the lead. Pasco scored the first touchdown by recovering a fumble in Zephyrhills' end zone. The Bulldogs tied the score at the end of the first quarter with a touchdown rush by Jaylen Pickett.
The next scoring play was a 52-yard TD reception by Nate Craig, and the Pirates finished the half with the lead.
Penalties marred the second half for both sides, but Pasco kept the lead. The Pirates' Johnathan Coats kicked a 47-yard field goal, capping the second half's first series of rushing drives.
Zephyrhills' Devon Brockington rushed 50 yards early in the third quarter to place the Bulldogs 26 yards from the end zone. It took four more drives, and Antwione Sims rushed the final 7 yards for the score. A safety on the next play drew the Bulldogs within one point of a tie.
Johns' 61-yard touchdown rush with 5:04 to play dampened hopes that the Bulldogs would be able to catch up in time for the win.
Going into the game, Zephyrhills was favored to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006. The Bulldogs' only loss before the 9-Mile War was to district champion South Sumter early in the season.
"We didn't play our game tonight," Zephyrhills coach Reggie Roberts said. "Missed blocks, missed tackles."
He shook his head and looked back at his team.
"We didn't get it done," he said. "We didn't get it done."