TARPON SPRINGS — In retrospect, starting slow and finishing fast probably isn't looking too bad to the Tarpon Springs football team.
The Spongers, typically lethargic in the early going but explosive in the second half, scored on the first play of the game and added a field goal before Land O'Lakes even got warmed up, but faded in the fourth quarter, losing 24-22 to the Gators in a key Class 4A, District 8 battle.
The loss knocks the Spongers (5-1, 1-1) from the district lead, as well as the unbeaten ranks.
They were felled by an opponent that was superior in executing its gameplan, which was to rush the passer and control the ball.
After Ladarrius Only's 80-yard run on the first play and a field goal, the Spongers surrendered 21 straight points to the Gators. Land O'Lakes was able to drive 87 yards for one score, and added another on a pass right before halftime.
"Sometimes we get that chance to put a team away, and go soft at certain points,'' said Spongers coach George Kotis. "We let them right back into it.''
The big play was a 36-yard interception return by Ben Hedblom. The junior linebacker tipped a short pass attempt to himself and ran in to give the Gators their biggest lead at 21-10 just two minutes into the second half.
But the Gators (4-2, 1-1) were hardly flawless, and the Spongers managed two scores in a 54-second span to retake the lead.
The first, a perfect 36-yard pass from Danny Reyes to Bobby Vavlas, was set up by a 10-yard punt.
The second, a short touchdown pass to Marcus Nemeth, was set up by a Stamati Damalos interception, giving Tarpon Springs a 22-21 lead late in the third quarter.
But the Spongers never maintained a consistent attack. Only once in the second half did they put together a drive longer than four plays, and that one went 10 plays for only 32 yards.
Twice they had long plays, including a 99-yard kickoff return by Miles Toli, erased by penalties.
The Gators answered Nemeth's touchdown with Alex Spock's 27-yard field goal with 10:49 left in the game, and the Spongers were punchless the rest of the way, failing twice on fourth-down plays.
Josiah Fisk, who had 80 yards rushing after Only left with an ankle injury after just three carries, had a long run inside the 10 wiped out by a penalty after the Spock kick.
That drive stalled, as did the others.
Reyes finished with 103 yards passing, but completed only 11 of his 25 pass tries.
And after his second touchdown pass gave the Spongers the lead, he was 1-for-7 with a game-ending interception down the stretch.