While the Pinellas Park offensive machine moved into high gear this year, Mark Sanders felt as though he was still in neutral. Sanders moved in as the Patriots' primary runner midway through last season and finished with 685 yards rushing. Over the summer, he ran and lifted weights. His bench press went up to 325 pounds and his 40 time down to 4.48, as he anticipated heavy work in the fall. Yet after six games in a mostly one-back offense, Sanders felt a bit like Herschel Walker.
"I asked Coach (Thad Starling) about it before the Dunedin game," Sanders said. "I was happy to be contributing to the team, but I wanted to run the ball more. He said I would get my chance."
He got his chance against Northeast last week, rushing for 224 yards and three touchdowns and bringing the Pinellas Park attack back to the ground _ for the moment. Getting the team back into the running mode is key to keeping teams from keying on the passing attack (Tony Rucker, Tony Bland, Jermaine Holmes, et al). So Starling went from a one-back set to a power-I, and Sanders ran wild.
"We wanted to keep people from teeing off on our passing game," the coach said, "and we felt that if we could start off running we'd be in good shape. All Mark needs is a seam, and he will make the rest happen."
Last week's running show came just in time. The Patriots tonight face Sarasota Riverview, which for the past few years has toured Pinellas County the way Godzilla toured Tokyo. Last year, the Patriots proved that a balanced attack could give a wishbone team like Riverview trouble.
"We feel that if they stay in their wishbone they're playing our game plan, because an attack like that takes six or seven minutes off the clock," Starling said. "And if they break out of the wishbone and try to pass, that's to our advantage too, because that would be forcing them to do something they're not used to doing."
Riverview would clinch the Class 5A, District 9 title with a victory. A Pinellas Park win would add spice to the race; Largo and Clearwater certainly would like to see the Rams join them in the realm of the once-beaten. But the Patriots need to get a good game from their offensive and defensive lines, trouble spots this year. Riverview's fronts already have handled the lines of Largo and Clearwater.
"I think if we play with the same intensity we played with against Northeast, I think we'll come out on top," Sanders said.
Wonderful thing, optimism. If it survives Friday night's game, I stand corrected. Riverview by 12.
Northeast (1-6) at Largo (6-1): Northeast was shredded on the ground by a passing team last week. Now it faces a team with four linemen over 230. Largo by 12.
Boca Ciega (3-4) at Osceola (2-5): After a strong start, the Warriors lost steam. Boca Ciega by 5.
Dixie Hollins (6-1) at Clearwater (6-1): Why will Clearwater win? In three words: Bigger, stronger, faster. Clearwater by 9.
Dunedin at Lakewood: Dunedin should still be smarting from its 17-13 loss to Tarpon Springs. Lakewood's Tony Hanna showed his passing prowess in a 29-12 win over Gibbs last week, but the Falcons' defense stood up to Pinellas Park two weeks ago. Dunedin by 8.
East Lake (3-4) at Ridgewood (4-3): East Lake ran wild against Land O'Lakes last week, but this one should be a lot tougher. Still, the Eagles have too much size and strength on the line for Ridgewood. East Lake by 4.
Gibbs (2-5) at Seminole (2-5): Both teams are coming off losses, so on the face it looks like a toss-up. But the Gladiators' offense has been looking good. Gibbs by 3.
Tarpon Springs (6-1) at Land O'Lakes (1-6): The Spongers gave their all in a non-district contest last week, marching 76 yards for the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter of a 17-13 win over Dunedin. Don't expect a letdown against a district rival, even one that's 1-6. Tarpon Springs by 14.
Clearwater Central Catholic (0-7) at Hudson (1-6): Hudson carries a six-game losing streak but should have too much for CCC, which managed just 53 yards in its 13-6 loss to Shorecrest last week. Hudson by 12.
Northside Christian (4-3) at Lake Highland (7-1): To win this game, Northside Christian has to stop back Dan Parkins (1,877 _ yes, 1,877 _ yards rushing) and score on a defense that has let up just 51 points. Lake Highland by 13.
Fort Pierce-John Carroll (1-6) at St. Petersburg Catholic (2-5): The Barons should rebound from the 40-7 pounding by Northside Christian. SPC by 6.
Temple Heights (3-4) at Shorecrest (5-2): Shorecrest's running game accounted for 213 yards last week against Clearwater Central Catholic. Shorecrest by 7.
Orlando Trinity Prep (3-3) at Admiral Farragut (0-7): Trinity Prep beat St. Petersburg Catholic 28-7 two weeks ago. Nuff said. Trinity Prep by 30.