MELBOURNE — Tampa Catholic may have been knocked off as the No. 1 team in Class 3A late in the season, but the Crusaders went about restaking their claim to the top spot Friday night.
T.J. Harrell scored three touchdowns and quarterback Kyle Ploucher fired two of his three scoring passes to receiver Justin Motlow as the Crusaders raced out to a commanding early lead, then cruised to a 45-10 win over Melbourne Central Catholic in a Class 3A region final.
"Our defense has been the backbone of our team, but the offense really showed up tonight. That's really been the doubt on our team," said Tampa Catholic coach Mike Gregory.
"I told the offense they needed to make a statement, and they did."
All four first-half touchdowns for Tampa Catholic (10-2) came from Harrell and Motlow as the visitors blitzed Melbourne Central Catholic (11-1) and led 31-3 at the break.
Harrell's 10-yard scoring run at 8:57 was set up by a fumble recovery by Jacob Rios. After Michael Sarafianos' 38-yard field goal, Harrell added a second rushing tally less than three minutes into the second quarter for a 17-3 advantage.
"The whole team came together for this one. The offensive line and defensive lines really stepped up," said Harrell, who added a third touchdown in the second half.
"We talked all week about getting physical. We took it personally."
After the Crusaders forced a turnover on downs in the red zone, Ploucher found Motlow down the visitors' sideline two plays later with a perfect pass that resulted in a 75-yard score. He struck again to Motlow with 40 seconds left in the half with a 20-yard pass over the middle.
"My O-line deserves all the credit. I felt like I was at home back there. No one came near me every play. I felt completely comfortable," said Ploucher, who finished 11 of 15 for 202 yards and three scores.
MCC cut it to 31-10 on a touchdown pass in the third quarter, but Trajan Herr caught a 12-yard touchdown and Harrell returned an interception 36 yards for a score just over a minute later in the final quarter for the finishing touch.
MCC entered the game averaging more than 45 points per game, but junior quarterback Brandon Ziarno, who tossed just four interceptions during the regular season, was picked off four times by a Crusaders' defense that created five turnovers.
Harrell, Devin Barrett, Bentlee Sanders and Tre Watson all recorded picks for the Crusaders, who will host Jacksonville Trinity Christian next.