At no point this past summer was Palm Harbor University at the center of the county football discussion. After all, the Hurricanes lost two starters to transfers and another two to injuries. Yet seven weeks into the season, here is PHU, suddenly 4-2. The county has had no better story in 2008 than the Hurricanes' unexpected transformation, which has them heading into tonight's game against Clearwater on a school-record, four-game win streak that includes first-time victories over Dixie Hollins and Countryside. And a win over the Tornadoes would give PHU its best record in school history. "It's been surreal," Hurricanes quarterback Sean Shelton said. "I don't think anybody would have ever expected this, except maybe the players and coaches here at the school."
PHU's emergence is proof that the sport doesn't belong solely to the football factories, that a school renowned for academics and soccer can make a major impact.
"We actually have a lot of good sports programs here," Hurricanes coach Pete Just said. "Unfortunately, football hasn't been one of them — until now."
At the beginning of the year, there was no reason to suspect PHU would make any significant turnaround. The Hurricanes were picked to finish in the bottom half of Class 5A, District 9, which isn't surprising, since they have never won more than four games in a season.
Despite years of being a county doormat, there was optimism among the coaches and players. A strong nucleus of returners from a team that was in most games last season.
"The biggest thing the coaching staff has preached is staying together," Shelton said.
PHU needed all the togetherness it could muster after finding out lineman Chaz Green and receiver Jones transferred to Tampa Catholic. Then, in the first two weeks of fall practice, receiver Mike McNeeley broke his leg and linebacker Scott Santangelo injured his shoulder.
It got worse as the season started. The Hurricanes lost badly to Tarpon Springs and Largo to start 0-2.
"At that point, I was really starting to have some doubts," Shelton said. "I was wondering if it would be just like all the other years."
Just was undeterred by the slow start. He simply kept the faith and his team practiced everything he preached. They ran the ball on offense. They forced turnovers on defense. And Just pushed every button but the one marked panic.
The perseverance paid off. PHU snapped its losing streak with a win over Seminole in Week 3.
But there comes a time in a program's turnaround when all the planning comes together for one glorious evening. For the Hurricanes, it came two weeks later against Countryside. PHU built a big lead, then survived in overtime to upset the Cougars 28-21.
"I was in shock after the game," Shelton said. "I couldn't believe we pulled that off. I had to wait and read it in the paper the next day to make sure it was real."
Now that a winning season is a possibility, the Hurricanes are thinking beyond that. They're trying to reach the playoffs for the first time. It could happen if PHU wins its final three district games, starting tonight against Clearwater.
"Our goal is to win out and host a playoff game," Shelton said. "That's something no one would have thought was possible at the beginning of the season.
"But now we believe."