Everyone around town knew they were losers. And the drivers of the cars riding along Sligh Avenue within earshot of Tampa Bay Tech football practice last year let the Titans know. The hecklers weren't kind, shouting, "You guys stink!" and "You can't play" from their windows. One even said, "Coach, you might as well bring those boys in. They're not going to win anything." A little more than a year later, the Titans head into tonight's district opener against Freedom with a chance for their second 4-0 start. Tampa Bay Tech appeared in the Associated Press state Class 4A state poll top 10 for the first time in recent memory this week, debuting at No. 9.
"This game is going to set the tone of the season for us," Titans senior wide receiver/defensive back Antonio Wallace said. "This is where we really find out how good we are."
Just two years ago, the Titans were 0-10. In last year's 6-4 season, they talked about making the playoffs in a district dominated by postseason regulars Armwood and Hillsborough. This year, they believe it.
"It's totally different now," second-year TBT coach C.C. Culpepper said. "The kids believe they can win. We believe as a staff we can win. The school believes we can win. And there's even people in the city now who believe we can win. The attitude has changed here."
Culpepper, a former Armwood assistant on back-to-back 4A state championship teams who played on an 0-10 Hawks team before they became a state power, has seen rebuilding before.
He has also seen progress. He looks across the practice field and across Sligh Avenue and points to a gas station at the corner.
"They used to yell at us," he said. "Now sometimes they'll park over there and watch practice.
Demands on defense
Tampa Bay Tech's defense allows fewer than nine points a game, but Culpepper's philosophy goes deeper: he challenges his defense to score just as much as the offense.
The message is simple, Culpepper said. Eleven helmets to the ball, rip the ball out, scoop and score.
"The biggest thing when I'm looking at film late at night on Saturday is that I want to see all 11 hats on defense in the frame when the tackle is made," Culpepper said. "I can say it's been rare this year that I haven't seen that."
In the Titans' rout of Bloomingdale, cornerback D.D. Johnson ran two interceptions back for touchdowns and linebacker Marquise Mulkey recovered a fumble for a scoop and score.
Likely swap at RB
The Titans offense is based on the ground game. And tonight's game might prove to be TBT's toughest test. It has prepared for Freedom as if running back Maurice Hagens, who is nursing a left knee injury, will be out.
Hagens has averaged 142 rushing yards a game, so his absence would make junior Jameel Jackson the Titans' primary back and put more pressure on senior quarterback Angel Rodriguez, a Wiregrass Ranch transfer who is averaging 78.7 rushing yards a game and has scored seven rushing touchdowns.
"It's definitely going to be a hard game without Maurice, but we've just got to step up and play as a team and hopefully get the victory," Rodriguez said.