It's a relatively lean year for city of Tampa schools in the high school playoffs, due to the surprising absence of Tampa Bay Tech. And with four city schools now in the same district — Hillsborough, Jefferson, Robinson and Blake — fewer have the opportunity to make it to the big games.
But the four teams that did make it? Each has legitimate state championship hopes. None will have an easy road, but the talent is there.
Here's a look at the first-round playoff matchups. Kickoff times are at 7:30 p.m.
Orlando Boone (4-6) at Plant (8-1-1)
Plant deserves to play a below -.500 team in the playoffs opener. Don't feel like the Panthers are getting away with anything here because know what's after that? Probably Dr. Phillips and Manatee, that's all.
That's assuming No. 4-ranked Dr. Phillips, which by the way is 10-0, handles Wharton. Top-ranked and also undefeated Manatee is practically a given, and the way it would break down Plant might actually end up hosting the region final (if Manatee plays Sarasota Riverview in the second round).
Does it sound like we're looking ahead? Sure. But we also know the Panthers won't be. They make a habit out of first-round slaughters. They have scored 48, 49, 67, 59, 47, 54 and 48 points in the past seven region quarterfinals. Boone had better be ready for a similar fate from the surging Panthers.
Boone was 0-6 heading into its Oct. 18 game with Orlando Freedom, a game the Braves won 28-27 behind 140-plus yards rushing from both its quarterback Calvin Smith and running back Darnell Burton. That essentially gave Boone the 8A-5 runner-up spot, and it started a four-game streak to end the season. And though they've averaged 50 points in the final three games, the Braves have done so against teams with four wins total. Plant has been rolling against quality opponents, all teams of a higher caliber than Boone.
Jefferson (9-1) at Largo (8-2)
A matchup of top-10 squads. If there's a possible issue with the No. 4 Dragons, it's not talent. It's lack of playoff readiness. That's not from a coaching standpoint, but Jefferson hasn't been pushed very often in pressure situations. The playoffs were basically secured way back in week two when Jefferson won a thriller against Hillsborough. Since then there was the 28-9 loss to Armwood in week four and really, only one other tight game the rest of the way.
Even their dramatic victory over Chamberlain wasn't a must-win, because Jefferson could have lost and still gotten into the playoffs by winning the following week (the Dragons beat Blake 56-0). So assuming Jefferson is ready to go from the kickoff, this is still a game it should take. Largo, which is ranked No. 7, lost its top two running backs to off-the-field situations last week.
Funny enough, the Dragons might have to guard against looking ahead: They will likely play No. 2 Armwood next week, although the Hawks have far from a first-round gimme opponent in No. 8 Venice.
Auburndale (3-7) at Jesuit (7-3)
What a finish to the season for the Tigers, and believe it or not we're not solely talking about last Friday's latest — 14 and counting now — victory against Tampa Catholic. That win marked the sixth in a row after a 1-3 start where the losses were to Hardee, CCC and Largo. Those three teams incidentally went a combined 25-5 and all won their respective districts.
While we're at it, three teams the Tigers beat also won their districts with TC, Ocala Trinity Catholic and Orlando Bishop Moore. Safe to say Jesuit coach Matt Thompson's goal of toughening up the nondistrict schedule to get his team ready for the playoffs was a good one.
Now that they're here, how far can the Tigers go? Well, the highest rated of the four district champs in their region is, oh yeah, that Bishop Moore team (and the Tigers would host if those two meet in the third round). As for the first-round opponent, Auburndale only got three wins, all district victories against teams that frankly aren't very good. Mulberry, Tenoroc and Poinciana only mustered six wins total. One thing for certain, Auburndale has played some decent teams, albeit not coming close against any of them. Expect that same scenario to unfold Friday.
Melbourne Holy Trinity Episcopal (7-3) at Tampa Catholic (8-2)
Well, Crusaders fans, look at it this way. If TC had actually beaten Jesuit, gotten that decade-plus load off its shoulders, maybe there would be one big exhale and everyone would take it that the state playoffs would be an easy road.
We tried. But it's actually true. TC has a brutally tough path to a state title, so anyone assuming the No. 1 ranking the Crusaders held for months meant they'd just waltz to a crown had better check the bracket. It doesn't appear that the team from Melbourne will present a problem, but after that it gets tough. Let's not forget, the Tigers do have a 1,000-yard rusher in Alex Bouie.