Can anyone stop Pasco from repeating as Class 3A, District 7 champions and going 10-0 again?
But can the Pirates, 4-0 after Friday's 44-19 rout of South Sumter, go further than the quarterfinals of the state playoffs, where Pasco lost last year?
Pasco's route to the district championship appears to be a cakewalk this season, particularly since archrival Hernando is having, by its standards, a down year at 3-2 so far.
Pasco is 1-0 in the district and thumped a South Sumter team that was 3-0 coming into last Friday's game and had previously hammered Hernando 35-14.
The Pirates play host to Brooksville Central this Friday and meet Hernando Oct. 30 and Hudson Nov. 13. Only non-district foe Land O'Lakes, currently 4-0, seems to pose a serious threat to another 10-0 regular season for the Pirates.
The teams meet Nov. 20, the last week of the regular season, and the game might offer Pasco a much-needed tuneup before the state playoffs begin the next week.
Ah, the state playoffs. Remember a speedy little team called Santa Fe? The Alachua County school dominated Pasco 35-16 in the Section III championship last year and went on to win the Class 3A state championship.
Santa Fe is 4-0 this season and ranked No. 1 ahead of No. 2 Pasco in the state 3A poll. More impressive, the Raiders have defeated four tough teams _ perennial 5A power Gainesville Buchholz, Live Oak-Suwanee, Tifton, Ga., and Newberry.
Pasco, meanwhile, is averaging 42 points a game against less-than-stellar competition. Either that, or South Sumter had an off night Friday. Or maybe it was the Pasco defense.
Coach Perry Brown praised the play of the unit in the waning moments of Friday's game.
"We came out with great intensity and made things happen," Brown said Friday. "We put them in a hole early."
Brown knows defense will be the key for Pasco in the post-season. But no matter how dominating the Pasco defense becomes, honing its skills against weak opponents during the regular season will likely tell on the Pirates in the post-season.
To set up a rematch with Santa Fe, Pasco must first win the 3A-7 title and take the region championship on the road (against the District 8 winner). On the safe assumption that Santa Fe does the same, Pasco would have at least one edge it didn't have in last year's sectional _ the home field.
But it will take more than that to beat Santa Fe. Unfortunately for the Pirates, the answer does not lie in their weak regular-season schedule.
Numbers game: Several starters begged Brown to put them back into Friday's game after Pasco had taken a big lead, hoping for the opportunity to pad their statistics.
To his credit, Brown stood firm. And he was rewarded when backup tailback Chris Roberts broke a 56-yard touchdown run. The Pasco defense shut down South Sumter's highly regarded running back Kelly Hart. Hart, who entered the contest with 370 yards in three games, was held to 41 yards on 14 carries. South Sumter abandoned its unusual system of alternating quarterbacks on each play as coach Inman Sherman tried to establish a more consistent offense. It didn't matter to the Pasco defense, which shut both QBs down.
Zephyrhills-Ridgewood: Zephyrhills head coach Tom Fisher seemed a bit uncomfortable when a reporter approached him for comment after his team lost 31-7 to Ridgewood. Maybe it's because an 0-5 start isn't easy to talk about. Or maybe it's simply because Fisher hasn't practiced talking about the Bulldogs much.
"You're the first reporter who has come up to talk to me after a game," Fisher said sheepishly. "I really appreciate that. Thanks."
There isn't any reason why sportswriters should ignore Fisher or his team. You can bet their opponents don't. The Bulldogs might be winless, but they're not an easy mark.
What the Bulldogs are is a collection of promising players who haven't put together enough flashes of their talents to light up a scoreboard.
Zephyrhills has scored only 27 points in five games, with running backs just a step away from long gainers and a receiving corps that can get open, but hasn't completely clicked with sophomore quarterback Donnie Pinkerton, who needs some seasoning.
Defensively, the Bulldogs seem just a few tackling drills away from being able to keep themselves in any ballgame.
This will probably wind up being one of the worst Bulldog football seasons in a decade. But there are hopeful signs for the future. So don't write off Fisher or his team yet.
Just take the time and interest to ask how they're doing every once in a while.
On the other hand, Ridgewood head coach John Castelamare had plenty to discuss Friday night. His quiniella of racehorse running backs Chris Carson (123 yards, three touchdowns) and Rob Blankenship (83 yards) ripped through the Bulldogs almost at will. Quarterback Ray Pepito continued his flashy ball handling and high-percentage passing (3-for-4, one touchdown).
Even Castelamare's unreliable defense posted its best statistics of the season against the Bulldogs.
The only blemish on the evening for Ridgewood was an ankle injury to offensive guard Mike Ribisi that leaves him doubtful for Thursday's Class 4A, District 8 matchup with unbeaten Land O'Lakes.
"They didn't have a game tonight, so they'll be healthy," Castelamare said. "Right now we're down one guard. We have to play well against those people. I'm sure it'll be tough."
Gulf-River Ridge: For about 15 minutes, River Ridge seemed to be thinking it could win two in a row.
Gulf would go on to beat the Royal Knights 43-7, but it didn't look like that was a remote possibility in the first quarter. River Ridge stopped Gulf's opening drive in three plays, forcing the Buccaneers to punt on fourth-and-16 from their own 14.
Opening the drive at the Gulf 41, sophomore running backs John Malacos and Nate Shipman went to work. Malacos followed a 6-yard run by busting a 17-yarder. Shipman added a 15-yard run and a personal foul penalty against Gulf put River Ridge at the 11.
Visions of victory danced in their heads.
It was short-lived.
Quarterback Larry Delberti dropped back and threw a pass right to Buccaneer Don Plensdorf. Gulf followed with an 89-yard drive that moved into the second quarter. The drive closed with Mike Pike, a former Royal Knight, rushing eight straight times and scoring from 4 yards out.
But River Ridge stayed in it. Malacos and Shipman again drove the Knights, and Shipman ended the 90-yard drive with a 33-yard TD. Adam Parker's extra-point kick tied the game at 7.
On River Ridge's next drive, Delberti pitched to Shipman, whose pass hung in the air for about a day before Gulf's Julius Mendoza picked it off. That led to another Gulf TD.
River Ridge's Heath Anderson had a 36-yard runback on a pooch kickoff, and River Ridge started at the Gulf 42. A pair of 9-yard runs by Shipman took the Knights to the 23, but Ryan Ronk dropped an accurate pass from Delberti. The drive died on fourth down, and Gulf scored again.
"I wasn't sure we played good football in the first quarter and a half," Gulf coach Wilbur Lofton said. "But after that, we controlled the game."
Player of the week: Pasco's Troy Hambrick, who scored three touchdowns and rushed for 126 yards in the Pirates' rout of South Sumter, gets this week's nod. Hambrick scored on a 1-yard run, a 33-yard fumble return and an 18-yard pass from Issac Johnson.
Stat chat: Speaking of Johnson, the surprising first-year senior quarterback has the best passing numbers in the county. Though trailing Hudson's Matt Gilio in yardage (413-383), Johnson has thrown seven touchdown passes against no interceptions, and his average gain per completion is 21.3 yards. Johnson has also completed 51 percent of his passes.
Ridgewood's Chris Carson regained the county rushing lead from Land O'Lakes' Trevor Lansford. Carson rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns in Ridgewood's victory over Zephyrhills and now has 458 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing. Lansford, who was idle last week, has 339 yards.
Carson also leads the county in scoring with 12 touchdowns, for 72 points.
_ Correspondents Steve Persall and Rick Gershman contributed to this report.
Making a list
Here's a ranking of Pasco's seven teams:
1. Pasco 4-0
2. Land O'Lakes 4-0
3. (tie) Hudson 3-1
5. Gulf 1-4
6. River Ridge 1-4
7. Zephyrhills 0-5
Land O'Lakes had an off date last week and meets Ridgewood in a Class 4A, District 8 showdown Thursday.