TAMPA — As Jefferson preps for its all-important contest against St. Augustine tonight, it's easy to see its motivating factor.
What is rarified air for most high school football programs has become commonplace for the Dragons.
Throughout the 2000s, Jefferson has been a mainstay in the state playoffs, making an appearance every year. Their most successful seasons were 2002 and 2004, when the Dragons lost in the state championship game.
They continued their success from 2006 to 2008, but had to share the spotlight with Plant and Armwood. The three rivals all competed in Class 4A during those seasons, routinely knocking each other around during regular-season matchups and sometimes sending each other home in the playoffs.
Jefferson lost to either Plant or Armwood in the region playoffs in those years. Plant twice knocked out Armwood on its way to state championships (2006, 2008).
During those years it was hard for Jefferson to be the best in the state when first it had to be the best in its own county.
But with the shift back to Class 3A, the Dragons are making what is poised to be their best run during Jefferson's decade of dominance.
A win against St. Augustine and Jefferson moves on to play for a state championship for the first time in six years. As record-setting Dragons' quarterback Quentin Williams said after last week's 49-27 win against Ocala Vanguard (in which his team trailed at the half for the first time this season): "We told ourselves we didn't want to go home."
Also, Plant continues its run for a third straight state championship and fourth in five years. Plant hosts Lakeland in the Class 5A state semifinals. The other bay area squad still alive in the post-season, naturally Armwood, hosts Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer.
All kickoffs are scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Class 3A state semifinal
ST. AUGUSTINE (13-0) at JEFFERSON (13-0)
Last week: St. Augustine defeated Pensacola 7-3; Jefferson beat Ocala Vanguard 49-27.
Last year: St. Augustine lost to Pensacola 9-0 in the 3A region finals; Jefferson lost to Pensacola 20-0 in the 3A state semifinals.
The skinny: How's this for dominance? After his 327 yards passing in the win against Vanguard, Jefferson QB Quentin Williams broke ex-Gator Tim Tebow's high school career mark for passing yards. He owns the county's career passing yards and touchdowns marks. He also owns the state career touchdown record and tied the county season TD pass record last week with his 51st of the season. Williams and the Dragons again will rely on his wideouts Chris Moore and Andre Davis, running back Demetrious Russell and a stout defense led by linebacker Ramik Wilson. St. Augustine will try and slow down the Dragons with its own solid defense. St. Augustine allowed an average of seven points per game and posted four shutouts during the season — but none since mid-October.
The edge: The Dragons did not have to worry about a bus ride to Pensacola for the state semis this year. Instead they can focus on a St. Augustine defense that has not been as strong in the playoffs — 46 points allowed in three games, but only three last week. Still, Jefferson's potent offense — despite a brief first-half hiccup last week that led to a 21-20 deficit — will be more than enough. After all, it scored 29 unanswered points in the second half last week. Look for the Dragons to advance to next Friday's Class 3A state championship game at Orlando's Florida Citrus Bowl.
Class 5A state semifinal
LAKELAND (13-0) at PLANT (11-2)
Last week: Lakeland beat Fleming Island 29-19; Plant defeated Countryside 21-13.
Last Year: Plant beat Lakeland 20-0 in the 5A state semifinals.
The skinny: A rematch after Plant went to Lakeland last season and shutout the Dreadnaughts, ending their season with their programs' first-ever shutout loss in the postseason. With Plant QB Phillip Ely nursing back spasms (he left the Countryside game in the first quarter), backup Nick Sanders could see significant playing time. Meanwhile, expect running back James Wilder Jr. to again lead the Plant offense. Trailing last week, Wilder ran for 163 yards and scored two of his three touchdowns in the second half to lead the Panthers to their comeback win. He even blocked a Countryside touchdown extra point attempt.
The edge: Call Lakeland a powerhouse lite this season. The Dreadnaughts are rock solid, but not quite as dominant as past seasons defensively. Lakeland only held opponents to 13 points or less three times this season. But Lakeland doesn't have to shut teams out because it still has an offense capable of moving the ball (40-point scoring average in the playoffs). But this likely will be a lower-scoring affair with possibly the last team touching the ball winning. With the home field, advantage Plant.
Rod Gipson can be reached at email@example.com.