Wharton walked off the field after a 37-19 loss against district leader Plant six weeks ago with a 1-4 overall record and what appeared to be a nonplayoff season for the third year in a row.
Boy, how things have a way of changing — quickly.
Coach David Mitchell's team regrouped, won four of its last five games and secured a 5-5 record and the runners-up spot in Class 8A, District 6. Tonight, the Wildcats get their reward: A trip to Orlando to face Dr. Phillips (9-1) in the opening round of the state playoffs.
So just how improbable was Wharton's turnaround?
The Wildcats overcame an 0-2 start, an injured starting quarterback in Chase Litton (concussion) after the first game of the season and a district that included powerhouse Plant, playoff regular Alonso and an improved Bloomingdale team.
Litton only missed one game and got plenty of offensive help from running back Darius Page (1,100 yards) and Vernon Hargreaves (5 TDs this season). Linebacker Rocky Enos led a solid defensive unit as the Wildcats posted wins against the Ravens and Bulls to earn their postseason ticket.
Wharton's last playoff trip in 2008 saw the team advance to the region semifinals.
Meanwhile, other area playoff matches tonight include Plant's pursuit of another title run starting with a first-round matchup against Orlando Boone, Gaither (first playoff appearance since 2008) playing at Durant, Hillsborough traveling to Largo to face a familiar playoff foe, Berkeley Prep hosting Frostproof and Jesuit hosting Port Orange Atlantic.
All games scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
*For information on Hillsborough teams not listed, go to the St. Petersburg Times website at tampabay.com/hometeam.
CLASS 8A REGION QUARTERFINALS
Orlando Boone (5-5) at Plant (9-1)
LAST WEEK: Boone lost to Orlando Edgewater 28-7; Plant defeated Robinson 51-9.
THE SKINNY: Boone won four of its last five games to qualify for the playoffs. But the Braves will have to face a motivated Plant squad which scored 48 points or more in three of its last four games. Plant still stings from last season's state runners-up finish in its mouth, not to mention a shutout loss to Armwood last month. And how's this for playoff potency: Since 2005, the Panthers have averaged 47 points in its playoff-opening victories.
Wharton (5-5) at Orlando Dr. Phillips (9-1)
LAST WEEK: Dr. Phillips defeated Orlando Freedom 56-42 on Nov. 4; Wharton lost to Spoto 35-28.
THE SKINNY: During its season-defining four-game winning streak, Wharton outscored its opponents by an average of 21 points. QB Chase Litton (1,600 yards and 8 TDs) and RB Darius Page (12 TDs) will have to make plays against a stout Dr. Philips defense. The Class 6A state runners up last season, Dr. Phillips is in the postseason for the fifth straight year. Dr. Phillips is led by standout QB Nick Patti, who has committed to Boise State.
CLASS 7A REGION QUARTERFINALS
Gaither (7-3) at Durant (7-3)
LAST WEEK: Gaither defeated Riverview 31-0; Durant lost to King 28-20.
THE SKINNY: This should shape up as one of, if not the, toughest games in the area tonight. Both teams are well coached, have solid defense and explosive players who can turn games around with one touch. Shug Oyegunle leads the Cowboys with 481 yards rushing and has a 92-yard TD to his credit this season while Carlo Perello has a team-high 32 receptions for 469 yards. Durant will look to homefield and hope the defense can produce big plays.
CLASS 6A REGION QUARTERFINALS
Lakewood Ranch (5-5) at Armwood (10-0)
LAST GAME: Lakewood Ranch lost to Manatee 38-7; Armwood beat King 54-6 on Nov. 4.
THE SKINNY: Lakewood Ranch comes in having lost two of its last three games. Armwood, on the other hand, hasn't lost since reaching the 2010 Class 4A state championship game. The Hawks have all the weapons on both sides of the ball and likely won't get tested until at least the third round of playoffs. However, Armwood has to hope the Florida High School Athletic Association doesn't rule guard Jack Lightsey ineligible, which could result having to forfeit all of its games.
CLASS 5A REGION QUARTERFINALS
Port Orange Atlantic (7-3) at Jesuit (9-1)
LAST WEEK: Atlantic defeated Matanzas 34-20; Jesuit defeated Tampa Catholic 27-10.
THE SKINNY: Jesuit has been on fire since losing its opening game to Plant, ripping off nine consecutive wins heading into the playoffs. Since reassuming the starting QB job at midseason, Tommy Eveld has been outstanding. Eveld completed his first 10 passes last week against TC and finished with three TD tosses. Atlantic comes in on a five-game winning streak and finished over .500 for the first time in the program's history.
Robinson (8-2) at Orlando Bishop Moore (9-1)
LAST WEEK: Bishop Moore defeated Orlando Freedom 35-28; Robinson lost to Plant 51-9.
THE SKINNY: The Knights may still be smarting a bit from that six-touchdown spanking Plant gave them last week. They'll have to regroup quickly as they travel to face a Bishop Moore team that can score plenty of points. The Hornets are on an eight-game winning streak and topped 40 points five times during that run. Robinson coach Mike DePue will be looking for his squad to revert back to its high-energy form from earlier in the year.
CLASS 3A REGION SEMIFINALS
Frostproof (5-5) at Berkeley Prep (10-0)
LAST WEEK: Berkeley Prep defeated DeSoto County 35-7; Frostproof defeated Auburndale 17-14.
THE SKINNY: While Berkeley Prep cruised to its district crown and playoff berth, Frostproof took the most difficult path — possibly fighting it out in a three-way Kansas tiebreaker. The Bulldogs had to beat Sarasota Cardinal Mooney and Lakeland Christian in tiebreaker games on Nov. 7. That means that by tonight, Frostproof will be playing its fourth game in 15 days. That could be good news for a Buccaneer lineup boasting QB Destin Nichols (17 TDs, 0 INTs), RB Nelson Agholor (1,484 yards, 23 TDs) and LB Schyler Miles (80 tackles). Another good omen: 20 years ago, Berkeley coach Dominick Ciao guided his first district-title team at Jesuit all the way to the state championship game.