King football players, 3-1 and atop the standings in Class 5A, District 6, came to school Monday basking in the glow of their three-game winning streak.
The Lions, winners against 5A-6 favorites Hillsborough and Armwood, as well as a talented Brandon team, had reason to be proud. Last year, they won only one game. The streak tripled their number of victories and tripled their head sizes until they got to practice.
There, Lions coach Pat O'Brien reviewed the film from the Armwood game, pointing out the mistakes in his team's performance. In addition to the normal number of broken assignments and plays, there were 85 yards worth of penalties.
"It was an ugly film," O'Brien said. "It was like I stuck a pin in their heads and let the air blow out. I had to let them get back down to earth. By the end, some of the players were saying, "Gee, didn't we win?' I think even the (assistant) coaches were kind of surprised."
It's a situation of mixed emotions for O'Brien. He guards against overconfidence, but loves his team experiencing success in his first year as a coach.
"I like to sit in here," O'Brien said in his football office Tuesday, "crack the door (to the locker room) and hear how excited they are and how they're developing family unity.
"It's really a good-bad situation."
Good because the team is winning. Bad because success can spoil the winning formula of hard work and humility.
Just look at the Tampa Bay Bucs. The excitement about their 3-1 start died quickly when they lost to Indianapolis Sunday. The Lions enter tonight's game against Bloomingdale (1-3) under similar circumstances, and O'Brien doesn't want his team to stumble.
"By no means do I think this is a shoo-in win," O'Brien said. "Bloomingdale is throwing the ball almost 70 percent of the time and we have some injuries in our backfield. It'll be a telling game for us."
King already has told the rest of the county to beware. The Lions upset Hillsborough 10-6 to begin the streak on Sept. 18. King quarterback Antonio McCullough threw a 66-yard pass to Cliff Dell and Glenn Sladle added a field goal to provide the scoring.
The next week, Brandon came in hoping to bounce back from a disappointing 5A-7 loss to Lakeland, but King scored 10 second-half points to win 17-7. Again, it was a McCullough touchdown pass to Dell and a Sladle field goal that keyed the victory. Larry Hunter added a 10-yard run.
Last week, the Lions beat another giant, Armwood 7-0 in a rainstorm. Lamarion Salmon's 18-yard touchdown run was the game's only score.
Each of the victories has been accompanied by some nagging ifs: Hillsborough played without fullback Dexter Battle; Brandon quarterback Adam Brick and fullback Darrick Jackson both were injured; and rain hampered Armwood's passing game.
But the "ifs" also could be interpreted as a good team making the mnost of good opportunities. King is the front-runner for the title, possibly because no one expected it to be in the race.
"I knew a lot of teams would underestimate us," McCullough said, "but I felt we had a lot of talent coming back. I knew we were capable of having a good record."
While McCullough has been the offensive spark, it's the defense that has really helped awaken the Lions. Nineteen seniors are on the team and most of them play on the defensive side of the ball.
Strong-side linebacker Rosco Sneed leads the team with 25 tackles, while middle linebacker James Creal, a converted fullback, has 22 tackles (13 solos) after only three games. Safety Chris Graves and cornerback Adrian Joyner have 11 solos apiece.
The Lions play a 43 defense with an emphasis on putting players in the right position. The unit's success has been keyed by a strong effort from its defensive line, led by nose guard B.J. Earley.
"Our main goal is to not let them outside," Earley said. "The outside guys drive them in and the inside guys drive them out and we meet halfway.
"If we keep the offense corralled, they can't get enough yards to get first downs."
Kings of the jungle
The King defense has played a pivotal role in each of the team's three victories. Here's the number of points allowed each game and the number of points each opponent averages each game:
Opponent PA Avg.
Plant City 32 25.50
Hillsborough 6 27.30
Brandon 7 14.75
Armwood 0 23.50