BROOKSVILLE — Coach Reggie Roberts turned away as his Bulldogs practiced a fake and handoff on Wednesday.
"Hey," he shouted. "Don't count us out."
It will be hard for anyone to ignore Zephyrhills (5-1, 2-1) after Friday's 37-16 victory over district rival Nature Coast (2-4, 2-2).
The win improves the Bulldogs' standing in Class 5A, District 6.
Many predicted the Sharks' success would hinge on whether running back DeShawn Smith (knee) was healthy enough to play. Though he was in for the majority of the game, he couldn't complete drives for touchdowns until the second half, too late to defeat a Zephyrhills team that scored early and often.
The Bulldogs' Jaylen Pickett, whom Roberts has said has yet to reach his peak, rushed for three of his team's five touchdowns.
"The best is yet to come," Roberts said, glancing over his shoulder to where Pickett sat on the field after the game.
He's under-recruited. You can't tell me he's not worth a (Division I) offer."
Zephyrhills led 21-0 by the end of the first half. Pickett had the first touchdown of the game late in the first quarter, rushing 1 yard for the score.
Ty Tanner threw a 70-yard pass to Jordan Roberts, and another drive from Pickett widened the gap further. NCT couldn't seem to catch up in the second quarter, even after Smith completed a 30-yard drive for a first down.
NCT's strength this season has been late drives and scoring, poking holes in opponents' tired defensive lines. While assistants on Zephyrhills' side muttered about calling the game at 35-0, NCT coach Charles Liggett told his team to play smarter.
A field goal by NCT's Austin Lacy seemed a small victory late in the third quarter, but the Sharks weren't finished. Smith rushed for two touchdowns while the sidelined Bulldogs screamed, "Defense!"
Incomplete passes marred the Sharks' efforts in the second half., however. The team attempted 14 passes and completed just one in the last two quarters, including three incomplete passes in a row that led to a punt return on a fourth down.
It was several minutes after the teams congratulated each other that Coach Roberts called the Bulldogs in and told them to take a knee.
"That's a victory," Roberts said, surrounded by his kneeling team. "But it didn't end like we wanted it to."
He told them they played well on both sides of the ball, but they need to improve their defense if they're going to prove themselves in the postseason.
"We're coming back to Hernando County for another round next week," Roberts finished, and the players cheered.
Mary Kenney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @maryknews.