ZEPHYRHILLS — Down 21-0 and having completed 2-of-5 passes for 5 yards through nearly a quarter and a half of play wasn’t quite the playoff experience Zephyrhills quarterback Charles Harrison III was looking forward to.
The senior looked uncomfortable, but made sure to it wouldn’t be the Bulldogs’ last home game of the season. Harrison turned a miserable night into one of the most memorable in program history, throwing for 214 yards and three touchdowns to lead Zephyrhills back from a 21-point deficit to defeat River Ridge 35-31 in a Class 5A region quarterfinal. The playoff win is the first for Zephyrhills since 2002 when the Bulldogs defeated Bartow 15-14.
"First half we didn’t really do too good," Harrison said. "That last touchdown before halftime really pumped us up. We went into the locker room at halftime and talked about coming out strong in the second half and that’s what we did."
A 13-play, 90-yard drive to start the second half was just what Zephyrhills (10-1) needed to begin the rally. A key 39-yard run by running back Elijah Thomas (13 carries, 58 yards) helped get the long drive going, with it ending in a 1-yard Harrison sneak to cut the lead to 21-14.
A fumble by Mikey Roussos (15 carries, 129 yards) on River Ridge’s ensuing possession put Zephyrhills inside the Royal Knights’ 10-yard line and Harrison eventually found wide receiver Tre’pavis Mobley for a 7-yard touchdown. After the teams traded scores, the game seemed destined for overtime. Then River Ridge’s Michael Webster made a 42-yard field goal with 1:55 remaining to put the Royal Knights (7-4) ahead.
But Harrison wasn’t done. On the 34-yard line, facing a second-down situation, Harrison escaped three defenders and found Jaquan Sheppard in the middle of the field — wide open — and the speedster went 66 yards for the game winner. The rematch between the Class 5A, District 8 rivals was another classic, with the previous meeting tallying in 73 points between the teams.
"We’ve been battle tested all year and it shows," Zephyrhills coach Nick Carroll said. "I told them they were going to face some adversity tonight and we were able to rally out of halftime and held each other accountable. What a great game here tonight."
Zephyrhills will host another home playoff game, as they’ll welcome Green Cove Springs Clay to town. The Blue Devils (8-3) defeated Hernando 41-37 on Friday night.