ZEPHYRHILLS — When it comes to Pasco County high school football rivalries, nothing compares to the annual Zephyrhills-Pasco clash — otherwise known as the 9-Mile War.
Simply put, it is the oldest, fiercest rivalry in the county.
"It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys when it’s going on," said Zephyrhills police captain Reggie Roberts, a former standout Bulldog player who later came back to coach at his alma mater.
"You get the bragging rights for the entire year," added Ricky Giles, Roberts’ father who was a Zephyrhills three-sport athlete before spending more than three decades coaching football and baseball at Pasco High in Dade City.
The neighboring East Pasco cities switch hosting a traditional prep game that dates to 1941. This year’s skirmish is Friday night at Bulldog Stadium with host Zephyrhills going for a third straight win in the rivalry— after seven consecutive losses.
Pasco leads the series all-time by a substantial margin, 40-19. This will the 60th version of the 9-Mile War, a number that includes two matchups in 1993 and 1994 as well as several years in which the rivalry was skipped.
No annual football game in the county involves entire communities like this one. Mayors Gene Whitfield and Camille Hernandez, of Zephyrhills and Dade City, respectively, again have a bet on the outcome.
As always, Whitfield is wagering a case of Zephyrhills bottled water while Hernandez has put up a case of kumquats in tribute to Dade City’s annual Kumquat Festival.
"It helps to keep the relationship light," Whitfield said. "We want to have a little fun with it and not perpetuate anything like a war."
There also is a traveling plaque at stake. In 2000, former Zephyrhills city councilman and longtime Rotarian Manny Funes worked businesses in the east Pasco cities to help fund a plaque with accompanying scholarship money. The winning team keeps the plaque for a year while scholarship funds are dispersed at both schools.
For his part, Roberts, who later played at Bethune-Cookman, said playing and coaching in that rivalry left him with long-lasting impressions.
"The camaraderie, the spirit and what it does for the community is amazing," he said. "When (the game is) going on, it takes a few snaps, whether you’re a coach or a player, to bring the emotion down. Then, after the game is over, you have family on both sides. I’m still not Pirate and they’re still not a Bulldog, but we can all get along."
"It means a lot more, because we all intermingle," Giles said of the game that sometimes pits relatives on opposing sides. "You can go to a football game and see everybody. That’s almost as important as the game."
Second-year Zephyrhills coach Nick Carroll, who also has played in the rivalry as a Bulldog, was ecstatic to defeat Pasco last season. Even better, he noted, was defeating the Pirates at their home, W.F. Edwards Stadium.
"It felt good to beat Pasco at Pasco," he said. "That’s the way to take care of your rival."
Noting his team’s 3-6 record compared to Zephyrhills’ 8-1 mark and the fact that the Bulldogs have already clinched a district title, Pasco coach Tom McHugh spoke of the ebb and flow of the rivalry.
"I remember how it used to be," he said. "It’s the other way around now."
Before Zephyrhills’ run of three straight playoff appearances as district runners-up, Pasco had a run of seven consecutive playoff berths that included two region final and one state semifinal appearances.
A victory this year will not change anything for the Bulldogs, who host a first-round playoff game, or the rebuilding Pirates, who will wind up with a losing record regardless. Still, the long-standing rivalry means there is plenty at stake.
"I’m just trying to be competitive now," said McHugh, adding, "No one wants to lose the last game of the season. The seniors don’t want to lose the final game of their careers."
Carroll acknowledged the rivalry more than McHugh, saying, "It doesn’t matter what your record is, you play for the history and pride, and beating Pasco."