Twenty-five bay area high school football teams will enter the postseason Friday. We offer a glimpse — superheroes and underdogs, traditions and superstitions — of what makes this time of year so special.
A Pirate's life for them
The game room at the Starling home in Dade City pays homage to a family tree with roots that trace back to the first Pasco football team in 1933, with pictures and stories and memories scattered about.
Bill Starling, and his brother Charlie, played on that team. Bill played without shoes sometimes, the story goes, because not everyone could afford shoes.
A picture of him in a Pasco football uniform sits on a mantel in the room.
Bill's sons, Edward and Virgil, played running back and end in the 1950s. Edward scored a county-record seven touchdowns — eight if you count the one he says was called back because of a penalty — in one game, which he topped by winning a state baseball championship in 1957, which he topped by becoming Dade City mayor, then he topped that by raising two more Pasco Pirates, and nothing tops that in Dade City.
A picture of him in a Pasco football uniform sits on a mantel in the room, right next to Bill's.
Edward's sons, Brad and Mike, played at Pasco in the 1980s. Mike was a linebacker.
Brad was a quarterback, who led Pasco to the 1983 state semifinals, and when the Tampa Bay Times ranked the top 99 players in county history in 2000, he was the highest-ranked Starling at No. 58, a few spots ahead of his dad.
Brad coached on the 1992 state champion, and is now the offensive coordinator.
A picture of him in a Pasco football uniform sits on a mantel in the room, next to Bill and Edward.
And the picture next to Brad?
His son, Grant, in a Pasco football uniform, who will start at quarterback Friday.
Being a Starling, Brad says, is special and unique. Zephyrhills has the Picketts, and Land O'Lakes has the Weatherfords, but no one has roots back to a time men walked around in $1.95 slacks and drove $600 cars and Franklin Delano Roosevelt was settling in for the first year of his first term as president.
He couldn't imagine his kids playing anywhere else, and truth be told even, he can't imagine his grandchildren playing anywhere else either.
He'll make room on the mantel.
"I used to think if I ever moved away, we'd have to move back to Dade City for at least one year so my sons (Grant and Jake, a sophomore) could play one season at Pasco just to keep it going," Brad said.
It's hard to tell if he was joking.
Patriots' Man of Steel
Pinellas Park junior running back/linebacker Kal-El Williams is named after Superman.
Here's the deal: Before Superman became Superman, he was called Kal-El while an infant on the planet Krypton. Just before the planet blew up, he was sent to Earth by his father, renamed Clark Kent, and everyone knows the rest of the story.
"My parents were Superman fans. My mom said that when I was born I was oversized, so they wanted to name me after Superman," said the 6-foot, 240-pounder.
And Williams, who dressed as the superhero every Halloween, has kept up the tradition somewhat, wearing a Superman shirt and socks during games.
"Every time I make a sack or a touchdown I show off my Superman shirt. The socks have little capes on them but they always fly off because, you know, I run so fast," he said.
Williams may no longer think he's invincible — when he broke his wrist at age 7 after jumping off a staircase "I had on my Superman cape … and I thought I could fly" — but thinking like the Man of Steel helps around game time.
"I think I'm strong and have super strength so I try to use that in games," he said. "I try to carry people and hit people really hard. I just think about being Superman."
When East Bay coach Frank LaRosa surveyed his team on the ride home from last week's tiebreaker wins over Plant City and Strawberry Crest, he saw a satisfied group of completely drained faces.
"It'd be like going on a mission and then coming back, knowing you accomplished your task and being exhausted," LaRosa said.
But the mission was complete: The Indians (7-3) were district champions for the first time in 40 years.
So last week, they relaxed.
The Class 7A, District 7 champs didn't have a bye week during the season. They had been going hard for 11 weeks in a row, including a kickoff classic, and grinding since twice-a-week chalk talk sessions in the winter.
Their dream of a first playoff appearance since 2005 — LaRosa's first year as an assistant — started to seem close after a 19-13 win over Plant City in Week 6. The student body jumped on board the next week with a 13-12 homecoming victory over Bloomingdale, and a bus load of them traveled in red shirts to see their Indians secure the first home playoff game in school history.
"It's unreal," quarterback Chris Carpentier said. "We're gonna see that banner 50 years from now when we come back to our 50-year reunion, and it's still gonna be up there. We made it happen."
East Bay took a day off last week before regrouping to figure out how to make more history Friday against Gaither (5-5). An Indians team that survived this season thanks to close, gritty wins is 0-6 all-time in the playoffs, including three-point losses to King and Chamberlain.
"That's what we're preparing for," LaRosa said. "To change all that."
Hair today, gone …
East Lake offensive lineman Mason Cole planned to cause a stir this week by practicing without his co-star — the flowing mane he has grown out for nearly two years. It was supposed to be gone, reduced to a simple, stark, short haircut.
Goodbye, American Idol. Hello, G.I. Joe.
The cut no doubt would have prompted a number of questions among fans: Was this just a new look for the playoffs? Or did he want to start over from scratch?
Actually, Cole planned to chop off his hair because it is now long enough to donate to Locks of Love, a nonprofit organization that provides hairpieces to children with long-term medical conditions.
Alas, Cole will not have his scalp sheared any time soon. The haircut has been put on hold mostly because East Lake keeps winning and coach Bob Hudson is known for his superstitions.
"I thought it was time to get rid of the hair," Cole said. "I told Coach about my idea and he reminded me that we haven't lost while I've had long hair. He said I should wait until after we're done with the playoffs to have it cut."
Hudson is a man of fastidious ritual. He keeps his car keys in the same pocket and wears the same outfit — polo shirt and shorts — on game days during the regular season. It is hard to argue with the results considering the Eagles just completed their first undefeated regular season and have outscored opponents 472-56.
Hudson does not want anything to jinx what could be a deep run in the playoffs.
"I like to keep things the same," Hudson said. "Why change anything if it's going so well?"
In Keil Wharton trusts
Bloomingdale had scored 23 unanswered points to take a sizable lead against Wharton in a Nov. 1 game the Wildcats desperately needed to seal their playoff fate.
The Wildcats (7-3), down by one late after forging a second-half comeback, knew exactly where to put the ball when they needed a season-saving play.
Seven yards from the end zone, quarterback Chase Litton handed the ball to Jeff Keil, who ran for the go-ahead score, 23 seconds left on the clock. Keil then tacked on the two-point conversion to his third touchdown of the night for good measure.
"When I got the ball, I was not going to be stopped," Keil said.
Coach David Mitchell has no reason not to trust Keil in moments like that.
Keil helped keep Wharton's postseason dreams alive earlier in the season when he had 228 total yards and the winning 43-yard touchdown in a 21-20 win against district rival Newsome.
Despite the numbers he has put up on the ground — 806 yards, 10 TDs — Keil's contributions have been overshadowed by a passing game that garners all the attention.
"I'm fine with being the underdog and playing under the radar," said Keil, who finished the regular season with 806 rushing and 484 receiving yards. "If teams don't respect me, that just fuels my fire more."
Keil plans to continue being Wharton's quiet leader. He has already been, at times, the Wildcats' hero, but should they need it Friday against Orlando Dr. Phillips — which has beaten Wharton in its past two playoff appearances — Keil is sure he has another game-saving play up his sleeve.
"Third time's a charm," he said. "As long as the coaches keep trusting me … we'll be fine."
Compiled by staff writers Matt Baker, John C. Cotey, Rodney Page, Kelly Parsons and Bob Putnam.