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North Hillsborough high schools stalk state football title again

Alonso High quarterback C.J. Bennett, who has 21 touchdowns, leads the Ravens against Newsome tonight.

Times files (2008)

Alonso High quarterback C.J. Bennett, who has 21 touchdowns, leads the Ravens against Newsome tonight.

CARROLLWOOD — Every year at football playoff season, north Hillsborough teams can be found in the mix.

Sometimes they even stick around awhile.

Chamberlain made a run to the state title game back in 2001. Wharton and Jefferson reached the pinnacle contest in '02. And Jefferson got there again in 2004.

But none of those squads could seal the deal.

Will this year be different?

Only time will tell as Alonso, Freedom, Sickles and Jefferson open the 2009 state playoffs tonight. All have played well enough at times this season to be contenders.

How far they go depends on how they play now:

Alonso has potent quarterback C.J. Bennett.

Sickles, arguably, is the most improved team in Hillsborough County this season.

Jefferson has record-setting quarterback Quentin Williams and a stable of offensive weapons.

And Freedom has playmakers and the steadying guidance of first-year coach James Harrell.

In Class 5A, Alonso travels to Newsome while Freedom goes to Clearwater to play Countryside. Sickles plays at powerhouse Armwood to open the Class 4A playoffs. And in Class 3A, Jefferson begins pursuit of an elusive state championship at home against Land O'Lakes.

All kickoffs are scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

CLASS 5A

ALONSO (4-6) at NEWSOME (7-2)

Last week: Alonso lost to Armwood 50-0; Newsome defeated Gaither 24-19.

Last playoffs: Alonso lost to Wharton 35-28 in the opening round of the 2008 playoffs; Newsome was eliminated in the region quarterfinals by Kissimmee Osceola 21-13.

The skinny: Despite an inconsistent season, Alonso managed to win enough key district games to grab a playoff spot. And with quarterback C.J. Bennett (2,000 yards passing, 21 TDs), the Ravens are usually in games. Newsome, meanwhile, doesn't do anything fancy. The Wolves run, run and then run again.

The edge: Newsome is a better team than it looked last week in a lackluster win at Gaither. It should prove it by eliminating Alonso.

FREEDOM (7-2) at COUNTRYSIDE (9-1)

Last week: Freedom defeated Lennard 45-6; Countryside was off last week.

Last playoffs: Freedom lost 21-13 to Winter Haven in the opening round of the 2006 postseason. Countryside lost 42-17 to Largo in the opening round of the 2008 playoffs.

The skinny: After early season losses, Freedom marched to five straight wins to close the regular season. More impressively, only once did the Patriots' defense allow more than 20 points all season. Meanwhile, Countryside boasts one of Pinellas County's top running backs in Alton Taylor (county-best 26 touchdowns scored).

The edge: The Freedom defense must contain Taylor. Do that, keep it close and Freedom could pull the upset.

CLASS 4A

SICKLES (8-2) at ARMWOOD (9-1)

Last week: Sickles defeated Wharton 42-6; Armwood defeated Alonso 50-0.

Last playoffs: In 2007, Sickles made the playoffs for the first time, losing to rival Gaither 37-3 in the opening round. Armwood lost 17-14 to eventual state champion Plant in last year's region finals.

The skinny: Sickles capped a strong turnaround season by earning just its second playoff appearance in school history. They did it with a strong defense led by Scott O'Donoghue and an offense directed by QB John Melvin Hendrick and RB Carey White (1,500 yards rushing). They'll need to perform well against an Armwood team that topped 50 points four times this year and scored 48 and 49 in two other games. The Hawks' offense is led by the trio of QB Josh Grady, RB Matt Jones and WR A.J. King.

The edge: Sickles is up and coming. Armwood is already there. Hawks win.

CLASS 3A

LAND O'LAKES (9-1) at JEFFERSON (8-1)

Last week: Land O'Lakes defeated Hudson 21-6; Jefferson defeated Middleton 69-8.

Last playoffs: Land O'Lakes lost 23-20 to Daytona Beach Seabreeze in the opening round of the 2008 playoffs. Jefferson lost 17-14 to Bradenton Southeast in the opening round of last year's postseason.

The skinny: Land O'Lakes rode sound defense and the throwing of QB Stevie Weatherford (1,800 yards, 24 TDs) to the playoffs under first-year coach Matt Kitchie. Jefferson counters with QB Quentin Williams, who set a school record with 31 touchdown passes this season, breaking the record set by Steven Garcia, now the starter at South Carolina. Williams guided the Dragons' offense to 352 points as he had four receivers, Andre Davis (16), Chris Moore (4), Eric Royster (4) and Adrian Jenkins (3), catch three or more touchdowns this season.

The edge: No team really has been able to slow down the Jefferson offense this season. Land O'Lakes won't be able to either.

North Hillsborough high schools stalk state football title again 11/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 19, 2009 3:30am]
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