There are five teams from eastern Hillsborough County playing do-or-die football tonight. Here's a look at the matchups:
Durant (6-4) at Dr. Phillips (9-1)
Quick count: Perhaps Durant coach Mike Gottman best summed up Dr. Phillips' offense.
"They can take it to the house on any play," he said. "You just hold your breath hoping that big play doesn't happen."
Durant's biggest challenge will be keeping the Panthers' offense on the sideline.
"From what we've seen on film, they are very, very explosive," Gottman said.
And it's quarterback Nico Ranieri who holds the keys to the Ferrari. Ranieri, who transferred in from Cypress Creek, set the school record for most passing yards in a single game three times, most recently throwing for 372 yards against Boone in the district title game.
The Panthers are riding an eight-game winning streak and have a number of weapons at Ranieri's disposal. Receivers Kenny Shaw and Ricardo Miller offer are "burners who can get vertical," Gottman says. Running back Demetrius Hart is equally as dangerous on the ground as he is in the passing game.
Kissimmee Osceola (7-3) at Newsome (8-2)
Quick count: Osceola went 14-1 last year and accomplished something no team had done in 53 previous games against Lakeland — they beat the Dreadnaughts. Just to prove it wasn't a fluke, the Kowboys beat Lakeland again in the state semifinals. All three of their losses this season were by seven points or less.
"We've seen the film," Newsome coach Ken Hiscock said. "And this is one good team."
But so is Newsome. The Wolves, winners of their final six games, captured their first district title and reached the playoffs for the first time in school history. Sophomore Conner Powers, who rushed for 1,121 yards, leads a Newsome team that has been preparing for Osceola for two weeks due to the Wolves' off-week last Friday.
"We've been trying to get the kids back to the fundamentals," Hiscock said. "And to try to keep them on an even keel because they're very excited."
Osceola runs a double-wing veer offense that is similar to Newsome's, featuring five players who have carried the ball 30 or more times. But the key will be stopping quarterback B.J. Butler. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder also plays defensive end.
"When he has the ball, we have to keep him moving sideline to sideline, not north and south," Hiscock said.
Bloomingdale (6-4) at Lakeland (10-0)
Quick count: As you all know, Bloomingdale made firsts this year by securing a winning record and reaching the playoffs. Time for a celebration, right?
Here are a few things to chew on. The Dreadnaughts have won six state titles, including a stretch of three in a row from 2004-06. The Florida High School Athletics Association recently named Bill Castle its Coach of the Century. The Bulls, losers of their final two games, will be without starting running backs Derek Johnson and Eugene Perry who were injured last week against Durant. To boot, the game will be played at Lakeland, home to the Dreadnaughts' rabid fans and multimillion dollar field, complete with a Jumbotron screen.
"I told them not to go there thinking they are sacrificial lambs," Bloomingdale coach Jason Stokes said. "We can't be in awe."
That, however, will be easier said that done. But this is far from the 2006 team that produced an astonishing 11 Division I recruits, including seven who went to the University of Florida. The Dreadnaughts won four games by seven points or less and that gives Stokes reason for optimism.
"There is no pressure on us," he said. "The team, the administration, the faculty and the student population are ecstatic."
Bloomingdale will send three buses of students up for tonight's game. Team shirts have been selling out at school throughout the week.
"We'll let it all hang out," Stokes said.
Armwood (10-0) at Winter Haven (7-3)
Quick count: Unless former Winter Haven and current Rutgers quarterback D.C. Jefferson slinks out of the stands and slides on a Blue Devils' jersey, Armwood should roll.
Spoto (4-6) at DeSoto (7-3)
Quick count: Another pleasant surprise this year has been the emergence of Spoto, also a first-time playoff participant. The Spartans, who forfeited three games at the beginning of the season due to an ineligible player, won four of their last five to make the postseason. But the loss during that stretch came last week against East Bay.
"I think that loss helped us," Spoto coach Dale Caparaso said. "Monday was one of the best practices I've had in my career. The kids realized what can happen and they were sharp."
Although the regular-season finale was disheartening, the Spartans were playing shorthanded. Wideout Alex Byers was suspended for the East Bay game and quarterback J.B. Burgess used a limited playbook due to injured ribs. Both will be in the lineup tonight.
Although the Spartans have never reached the postseason, their coaching staff has plenty of experience. Caparaso is hoping that will offset the Spartans' blank playoff record.
"I always believed that teams are a reflection of their coaching staff and this staff has been (to the playoffs) many times," he said. "We know what it takes to get them ready and they will be. I don't put much stock in the players' lack of experience."