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Bramlett a big reason for win

The son of a local thoroughbred owner and former Crystal River player himself probably put it best, spinning an old horse racing parable once told to him by his father.

"Sometimes you've got two horses that are both fast and both strong," the father said, "and that's when you bet the trainer."

Eddie Gerrits isn't a betting man, but he knew where the smart money was Saturday night. It was with his former coach and a man he greatly respects, Earl Bramlett, who has built a reputation for getting the most out of his teams.

And on Saturday night, Bramlett showed why his coaching commands the respect of peers from Fort Myers to Jacksonville.

There are several reasons Class 4A No.

2-ranked Crystal River beat No.

5 Hernando 28-17. Foremost, though, is coaching.

The Pirates were better prepared in this matchup of North Suncoast thoroughbreds, the second in a row for Hernando, which downed Zephyrhills the previous week. They were more motivated, executed better from the outset, and in the final furlong, seemed better conditioned.

While both teams had strong stables of athletes, Crystal River had the game plan. It was a factor when the Pirates sprinted to a 14-3 lead, a factor when they went down 17-14, and a factor when they bullied their way for 91 yards and a touchdown on the pivotal drive of the game. They were strong and they were ready.

"You'll see the same thing every game," Bramlett said. "The coaches do a great job and the kids play as hard as they can play. And that makes all the difference in the world."

Crystal River's first play was maybe its worst. Quarterback Jimmy Grimsley missed high on a pass to wingback Bruce Bellamy in the flat and Hernando's John Capel grabbed the tipped ball and returned it to the Crystal River 14-yard line.

Hernando, playing most of the first quarter without starting quarterback Brandon Browning, who was held out for disciplinary reasons, was held on three straight running plays and had to settle for a 27-yard field goal. Crystal River took advantage on the ensuing series, and in a preview of things to come, proceeded to march right through the heart of the Leopards' defense on a six-play, 66-yard scoring drive for a 7-3 lead.

Crystal River needed just one play on its next series to claim a 14-3 advantage. After stopping Hernando on fourth down at its 36, wingback Leonard Johnson Jr. sprinted off tackle and outraced the Leopards on a 69-yard TD run.

The key in both series, as it would be in future drives, was the intensity and execution of the offensive line, which ripped open holes for the Pirates' trio of Johnson, Leroy Hill and Ricky Posselt.

This is not to say the Leopards did not have their chances. In fact, they had many. However, on all but three, Hernando was stifled by Crystal River's swarming defense, which held the Leopards' big-play production in check for the better part of four quarters.

"(Not having Browning for the first quarter) probably affected us some," Leopards coach Bill Browning (Brandon's father) said. "But they just controlled the offensive and defensive front, and we didn't play well in the first half. One thing a lot of people may not realize is that this was probably a lot bigger game for Crystal River than for us. Our big game is Friday against Pasco (for the district title)."

Only in the third period would Hernando emerge from its slumber and begin to display the firepower that had helped it to a 7-0 record. After driving inside the Crystal River 20 three times (and inside the 35 two other times) in the first half, Hernando finally found the end zone on its second series of the second half when Johnnie Thompson sprinted in from 14 yards out.

Capel, who had been held to 45 yards on 14 carries in the first half, sparked the drive with a 32-yard run and finished with a team-high 117 yards total. He would begin Hernando's next drive with runs of 8 and 9 yards before Jamar Williams gave the Leopards their second lead of the game with a 63-yard scoring run through the middle of the Pirates defense.

That, though, would be it for the Leopards as Crystal River went back to basics and took control with one of its most impressive drives to date. Leroy Hill, who led all rushers with 159 yards on 23 carries, accounted for 61 of 91 yards needed for the winning score (including an initial run of 29 yards) and capped the effort with a 1-yard burst up the middle, giving Crystal River a 21-17 lead with 6:33 to play.

After stopping Hernando inches short of a first down on fourth-and-4 at the Crystal River 24, the Pirates added a little insurance with a 79-yard drive on nine running plays.