These days, contending that Hernando High is about to play its "biggest game to date" is becoming routine, and we haven't even reached the playoffs yet.
Blame the undefeated Leopards' schedule: Three state-ranked opponents, followed by the resumption of the Hernando-Pasco rivalry, followed by the Springstead-Hernando season closer.
So what's the line on tonight's 7:30 contest at Crystal River?
Well, if it's not Hernando's biggest game to date, it is definitely the toughest opponent _ and yes, that includes Zephyrhills.
Hernando's 20-8 victory over the Bulldogs, then ranked No. 2 in Class 4A, advanced itself and Crystal River in the state poll. Crystal River (8-0) now is No. 2 while Hernando (7-0) is No. 5.
The Pirates have won 19 of their past 21 games and boast a defense just as impressive as that of Zephyrhills, even if they have no single athlete along the lines of Ryan Pickett. (Both Hernando and Crystal River are allowing 10 points per game.) But the Pirates also have a backfield much more dangerous than Zephyrhills' one-trick pony Terry Allen.
Hernando's predatory run defense won't be able to key on a single rusher, a la Allen, against Crystal River's Delaware Wing-T formation.
"You've got to defense three backs with that," Hernando defensive coordinator Joel Myers said. "I don't think we've faced anybody with quite that good a backfield."
The three backs Hernando will see are Leroy Hill, Ricky Posselt and Leonard Johnson Jr., and the first two have put up huge numbers against every team they've faced: a combined 1,606 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Crystal River will try to control the clock with its power trio, and if it succeeds Hernando won't have many chances to show off its big-play offense.
Pirates coach Earl Bramlett knows running on Hernando will be no easy task: "What I think a lot of people don't realize is that (the Leopards) have a great defense. They've got quickness and good size. With their speed, they can run around back there and take the big plays away from you."
Hernando hasn't faced any awesome passing game this season _ it was lucky that Zephyrhills' Demetrius McKay hurt his ankle early in last week's contest and no longer was a receiving threat. Granted, the defensive line pressure on Bulldogs quarterback Jaimie Sullivan took away much of the passing game anyway. But Crystal River has a receiver who should keep Hernando's hands full.
William Richardson has 22 catches for 332 yards and nine touchdowns. He doesn't have the speed of Hernando's John Capel or Eric Kincade, but he's much taller and has great leaping ability. Crystal River quarterback Jimmy Grimsley, a third-year senior, likes to loft it to Richardson on a nice, safe fade route, and no one has stopped it yet.
While Crystal River will try to stretch Hernando's defense, it could have trouble stopping the Leopards' big-play ability. Capel reminded Zephyrhills last week (as he had the previous week against South Sumter) that you can stop him early, but you can't do it all night.
Sophomore fullback Johnnie Thompson appeared Thursday to be much improved from the hip pointer injury that sidelined him for much of the Zephyrhills game. He'll be a long way from 100 percent, but if he can just move the ball consistently it will free Jamar Williams up for more defensive work and Capel to be a weapon elsewhere.
"Let's put it this way: If we both had relay teams, they would beat our relay team," Bramlett said. "But we're not going to do anything different for this game. We'll stay with what got us this far. They've got some players that can make some big plays, but we'll just try to give a little here and there and try not to give up too many big plays."
The game will decide the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference championship, but will be irrelevant to the playoffs. However, if Hernando falls to Pasco next Friday, a resulting three-way district tiebreaker could have the Leopards facing Crystal River again in the first week of the playoffs.
In fact, if the Leopards have ever been due for a letdown, it's now. They're coming off a huge win in a key district game, and a loss to Pasco next week could put their playoff hopes in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Crystal River already has clinched its district. It just wants to stay undefeated. Crystal River also has always been a tough team to beat at home, though both losses since 1996 were at Pirate Stadium.
The biggest key for Hernando will be on defense: avoiding big plays to Richardson and shutting down the Pirates' running game. The three seniors on the defensive line _ Keylow King, Levar Stephens and Kevin Tracy _ recently were joined by freshman Dee Brown, just up from the JV. Myers thinks Brown fits in fine.
"He did a real good job against Zephyrhills, very aggressive for a freshman," he said. "Defensively, we've come a long way."
_ Staff writer Carey Freeman contributed to this report.
CLASS 4A UNBEATENS
Two of the four remaining unbeaten football teams in Class 4A are scheduled to meet tonight in Crystal River:
Crystal River 8-0
Glades Central 7-0
Jacksonville Raines 7-0