TAMPA — Back in August, before his team played a snap and long before its regular season-ending game against Jesuit, Tampa Catholic coach Bob Henriquez said just the thought of stepping on Jesuit's field gave him the "heebie-jeebies."
Tonight, Henriquez will take one of his most talented teams to Jesuit to continue an annual series that has been one-sided beyond comprehension for nearly two decades.
Jesuit has won nine straight — Tampa Catholic hasn't won this decade — and the past 17 of 19. The Crusaders regularly bring talented teams into the game, so their losing streak can be chalked up only as an unexplainable sporting circumstance.
"I don't know if there is an explanation for it, really," said Jesuit coach Joe Ross. "It's a competitive atmosphere, and the old sporting cliche, on any given night anyone can win. … I really don't have an explanation for it.
"That's one game we don't have to get our kids up for."
For a Tampa Catholic team ranked second in the state in Class 2B and poised to make a lengthy playoff run, Henriquez said the plan this week was to make it seem like any other game.
"I've had to come to terms with that, because as a head coach, your team takes the personality," Henriquez said. "If I've got that mentality where I can't wait to play them or I get so caught up in it, they're going to get that way, too.
"I'm very much at peace this week," he added with a chuckle.
But this game is personal. Henriquez, as a kid, had to decide which high school to attend, forming an allegiance that turns blood green or blue.
"I respect and understand what both of these schools mean to this community and to each other," Henriquez said. "They're one of the icon programs in Hillsborough County, if not the icon program, going back to when coach (Dominick) Ciao was there."
And in some seasons — as has been the case for Jesuit the past two playoff-less seasons before 2009 — a win makes the season. This year both teams are playoff-bound. Tampa Catholic is one win from an unbeaten regular season.
Henriquez said if it comes down to one-on-one matchups, he feels good about his team's chances. But it will be keeping his kids away from — his words — "mental gyrations" that encompass this game.
"I think this year the guys are doing a better job of it," Henriquez said. "Not every word out of their mouth is 'rivalry' and 'Jesuit.'
"It's still football. The field's the same size. I don't care if it's field turf or sandspurs. We've seen these schemes numerous times this year. It's a matter of not giving them anything for free."
Staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report.