During the ninth week of the 1989 high school football season, Ridgewood and Pasco were wallowing in losses. Many turnovers and missed tackles earlier, visions of district titles had faded. The Rams and Pirates, who combined for four victories in 1989, are in title battles entering the ninth week of the 1990 season.
The Rams (4-3 overall, 3-1 in Class 4A, District 8) control their destiny. They will win the district if they defeat their last two district foes: East Lake (3-4, 2-1) at home Friday and defending district champion Tarpon Springs (6-1, 3-0) on the road Nov. 9.
Ridgewood never has won a district championship. The Rams had a chance to win the title in 1985, but they lost at home to Tarpon Springs 28-7 in the deciding game.
"I'm happy we're in a position to win the district this year," Ridgewood coach John Castelamare said, "but it's not going to be easy."
The Pirates (6-2 overall, 6-2 in Class 3A, District 4) controlled their chances until the home game against South Sumter last week. It was just Pasco's luck that the Raiders were coming off a stunning loss to Lecanto, which had dropped its previous 17 games. South Sumter came from behind to snap Pasco's winning streak at six games, 21-14, and make the district a four-team race.
Tampa Catholic leads the field at 6-1. Tampa Jesuit and South Sumter are 5-2. The Pirates defeated Tampa Jesuit by a 6-2 score earlier in the season and face Tampa Catholic on Friday night at Hillsborough High.
The Pirates seek their third district title and first since 1983.
With four teams still in the district hunt, there are about as many scenarios as their are combinations for the lottery. But one thing Pasco coach Perry Brown knows for sure: "If we don't beat Tampa Catholic, we're out of it."
Unlike Pasco, Ridgewood has yet to defeat a team with a winning record. It has beaten Crystal River, Land O'Lakes, Hudson and Gulf _ teams that have a combined record of 8-21.
The Rams trounced Gulf 28-0 last week. It was Ridgewood's most decisive victory of the year and its first regular-season win over the Buccaneers. Ridgewood's other three triumphs were by a combined 10 points.
Running back Bill Niehr led the Rams with 12 carries for 131 yards and three touchdowns against Gulf. The senior has rushed for 703 yards on 120 carries (a 5.9 average) and has a chance to break Ridgewood's rushing record of 942 yards, set by Keith Sibo in 1985.
The Rams will meet an East Lake team that has improved in its past few outings.
"In our first five games, we were averaging six fumbles a game and four interceptions a game," East Lake coach Rob Jenkins said. "And our receivers were dropping about six passes a game. So one third of our plays produced negative results for us."
Jenkins said his team, which defeated Land O'Lakes 31-7 last week, has eliminated most of those problems. "If we don't shoot ourselves in the foot, we could win," he said.
Castelamare said East Lake's size, especially on the offensive line, concerns him.
"Our philosophy is to run behind our big linemen and then throw to keep them honest," Jenkins said. "We don't have big-play backs. We just like to hold on to the ball Oklahoma-style. We run three yards in a cloud of dust and keep going forward."
East Lake uses three backs: Brian Hackett (299 yards), Jay Jackson (252 yards) and Jim Schimpf (229 yards).
The Eagles hope that quarterback R.J. Slutz (27-of-64 for 306 yards) stays healthy, because backup quarterback and cornerback Lenny Lilja may have torn knee cartilage and is doubtful for the game.
The Rams probably will be without center Mike Byrne, who has an ankle injury. Guard Corey Denninger has a sore ankle but probably will play.
"This year, the ball has gone our way a little," Castelamare said. "In the past, it has seemed to go against us. We know it's not over yet. We have three tough football games left, and then we'll see what happens."
At Pasco High, Brown said his players have been "real flat" since their loss to South Sumter. In that game, a touchdown by Mike Penix was called back because the official ruled he had stepped out of bounds. The score would have given the Pirates a 21-8 lead.
After the 21-14 loss, many of the Pirates said they felt "cheated." Brown said he has had a challenge trying to get his players to focus on the decisive game against Tampa Catholic.
The Pirates have allowed just 70 points in eight games, but their defense will receive one of its toughest tests against the Crusaders.
Tampa Catholic's Willie Queen needs only 118 rushing yards Friday night to break 1,000 for the second consecutive year. He has eight touchdowns to go with his 5.9 average.
"Willie Queen can run real well outside, and he can catch the ball," Brown said. "He's dangerous. We've got to play some good defense to win."