Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Sports

Playoff ambitions evident in opener for Zephyrhills, Wiregrass Ranch

WESLEY CHAPEL — A new football season in Pasco County begins tonight, but this one promises to be like none before it — with more math than ever. A new playoff system emphasizes schedule strength, making nondistrict tilts particularly important.

For a team like Zephyrhills, which has seven district games, there is no chance to tiptoe into the schedule.

"Heck no, man!" said the Bulldogs' second-year coach, Nick Carroll. "This isn't an easy game. Wiregrass Ranch is a good football team."

The Bulldogs and Bulls meet up at Wiregrass in a matchup of returning playoff squads and Tampa Bay Times' HomeTeam top 25 members, as well.

Wiregrass checks in at No. 13 and would likely be higher if not for recent transfers. Da Da McGee, who ran for more than 1,000 yards as the Bulls went 7-3 last season, recently left for Hills­borough High, and before that CB Shamaur McDowell chose to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton.

But the Bulls can't afford to feel sorry for themselves.

"They really have taken the mantra of 'next man up,' " Bulls coach Mark Kantor said Monday. "Guys have taken that next step of being great leaders, great teammates. We're excited for the bunch we have."

Penn State signee/cornerback Jordan Miner has stayed put, Chase Oliver is a more-than-capable running back, and quarterback Grant Sessums threw for 220 yards in the second half of a 21-19 preseason loss to Clearwater Central Catholic.

Senior Jatshaun Pyce, along with juniors Noah Abdel, Cam Lee and Kasean Ridgel, have taken over leadership duties.

Miner is more than happy to help out on offense, too.

"Hopefully — if Coach lets me," said Miner, exchanging wry smiles with Kantor, ones that suggest his wish will be granted. "We're ready. CCC game, we really got to see where we were. We saw what we were capable of in the second quarter. When everybody buys in, the results showed."

The result of today's game is far more important than the typical season opener. Until now, only district games counted towards a team's playoff hopes.

A smaller district easily could — and often did — produce a playoff team that finished with a losing overall record, some with no business being in the postseason.

Under the new Florida High School Athletic Association system, that will be hard to pull off. In each region, the four district champions will still make the postseason, but the remaining four teams will be determined by a points system.

Basically, the better the opponent, the more points awarded.

"I don't believe in playing competition that's not going to make us better, especially in our ultra-competitive (Class 7A, District 8)," Kantor said.

State power Plant High is still in the district, so the reality of gaining playoff entry as a wild card looms for Wiregrass.

A win over Zephyrhills would be of great assistance, but the Bulls will have to try to contain senior quarterback Charles Harrison III.

"He can make something out of nothing," said Carroll, the former Sunlake assistant who guided Zephyrhills into the playoffs with an 8-3 mark last year. "Charles is a great football player. Even if the wide receiver's covered, he's going to be another guy in the backfield than can really run."

Harrison ran for 161 yards in last week's preseason loss to Mitchell. Carroll wants the Bulldogs to be more physical.

"Fundamentally, we did some good things. We were all around the football, (but) we missed some tackles," said Carroll, who liked what he saw from junior linebacker Nyjohn Moody and Elijah Thomas, the returning leader in the backfield.

It could be quite the high-scoring affair tonight, but coming out on top takes on special importance.

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