TAMPA — Not even two weeks before, on that very same field, Jesuit was staring at a district championship, only to have it ripped away by a Jefferson goal-line stand on a two-point conversion attempt in overtime.
In the days following, it ate at the Tigers.
On Jesuit’s second drive of Friday’s rematch, though, the Dragon defense picked up right where it left off.
Jesuit had it third and goal at the 1-yard line, but on the next two plays, Jefferson stopped the Tigers in their tracks, forcing a turnover on downs.
"It was frustrating, because we worked so hard to get down there and we got stopped," Jesuit tight end Larry Hodges said. "Our goal is to score every time we touch the ball."
That was far from reality in what was to become yet another defensive battle between the two teams. But while the Dragon defense started the show in Friday’s 5A region quarterfinal, the Tigers finished it, holding Jefferson to just 153 yards of total offense and picking off quarterback Matthew Gaffney on a would-be game-tying, fourth quarter drive to win 14-7.
Jesuit will play at Lakewood in next week’s region semifinal.
Aside from the goal-line stand, Jesuit punted twice in the first half, missed a field goal and lost an interception. But six seconds before the break, tight end Larry Hodges broke the stalemate, scoring on a 44-yard reception just one play after running the wrong route.
"Coach said, ‘If you run it right, it’s a guaranteed touchdown,’?" Hodges recalled. "We have a strong defense. They practiced hard all throughout the week, so we tried to make some changes on offense."
A third-quarter Jesuit fumble fueled a Jefferson touchdown drive, capped by a 6-yard touchdown from Niko Duffey. Jesuit responded quickly, sustaining a long, run-heavy drive. The Tigers strung together five rushing first downs, and Matt Pittman delivered on a 1-yard touchdown run to put the Tigers (6-4) ahead again.
Running the ball, coach Matt Thompson said, was exactly what the Tigers came in wanting to do with its second shot against the Dragons.
"I think their defense is pretty good. They’re a big, physical front, and I think we had trouble early in the year with big, physical defensive linemen," Thompson said. "You can tell we’ve been getting better."
Now with the lead, all Jesuit had to do was stay strong on defense, as it’d been doing all night, to survive and advance. Late in the fourth quarter, Jefferson (8-3) challenged the Tigers, converting on fourth and 6 in Jesuit territory to keep its chance at a rally — and its season — alive.
But with less than three minutes to play, safety Kendrick Torain, remembering the words of rematch wisdom Thompson told the team before kickoff, made a leaping grab, picking off Gaffney to all but squash the Dragons’ hopes.
"(Coach said) get to the ball with a sense of urgency," Torain said. "It’s the playoffs, so play like you’re about to lose something. Play for something."
And thanks in part to Torain, the Tigers have the chance to continue doing just that.