This was no way to set up a showdown.
Citrus and Crystal River will partake in the oldest high school football rivalry in Citrus County this Friday, with a playoff berth at stake to make the pot even richer.
But last Friday night made it painfully clear that neither team is in fine form for its last regular-season game. While Crystal River struggled on offense in a 7-6 loss to Central, Citrus' sideline resembled a MASH unit in a 35-12 loss at Hernando.
"We just aren't doing the little things it takes to win right now," an obviously disgruntled Crystal River coach Earl Bramlett said on his way to the locker room.
But now is no time to fall apart.
The second half of the season has certainly taken its toll on Citrus. After a promising 5-0 start, a string of bigger and stronger opponents has the Hurricanes reaching for the salve to salvage a winning record.
First came Class 6A Ocala Vanguard, a 35-0 loss. After that, a disheartening 13-6 loss at Central, a bruising 20-0 loss to South Sumter, and finally a 35-12 pounding at the hands _ but mostly the feet _ of Hernando.
The most costly blow against the Leopards came when junior running back Dwight Neil, the North Suncoast's third leading rusher with nearly 700 yards going into the game, was sent to the sideline in the first half with a broken finger.
"Him and the six or seven others they messed up," Citrus coach Ken Berry said, referring to, among others, the quarterbacking tandem of Troy Waller, who was knocked silly, and Brian Turner, who required stitches to close a cut. "I'm down to one tight end, I'm down to half a quarterback, I mean, we got mangled."
But it gets worse.
Whoever puts it together well enough to win next week earns the dubious honor of traveling to Class 4A, District 5 winner Alachua Santa Fe for a sub-region playoff game. Last year, the Raiders dismissed Citrus 50-7. In 1991, Crystal River took its lumps 58-0.
There is one county team finding more wins than losses in the late season. Lecanto High, thanks again to the foot of place kicker Nathan Garcia, topped winless Clearwater Central Catholic 15-13 Friday night for its second victory of the season.
The Panthers have won two of their last three.