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Players recall game that rocked rivalry

With the Pasco-Hernando high school football series resuming Friday after a two-year layoff, the Times is taking a weeklong look at memorable games and personalities.

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The feeling was still there in 1973 when Pasco and Hernando hooked up for football. Ricky Thomas, now the Pasco coach and then a Pirates tailback, fondly remembers the hype, the buildup, the trash talk.

They always remember the trash talk.

"They had a running back named Lester Brown, and we talked all week," said Thomas, whose team will renew its rivalry against Hernando on Friday. "We were trash-talking. We were 1-2 or 2-3 in rushing in the area, and I was telling him I was going to get more yards than him that week."

Thomas didn't get more yards than Brown that night, but he scored Pasco's only touchdown in a 28-8 loss. The win for Hernando wasn't all that significant, improving its record to 3-2.

The significance lay in this: Hernando went on to dominate the series, winning 10 straight games and reducing the rivalry to just another game.

"It was still a big game. Zephyrhills, though, had become the big game by then," said Scott Hunt, an assistant coach at Pasco in 1978 and now at Palmetto. "But it was nothing like it is now."

Blame it on Hernando. The Leopards not only won 10 straight games, but they did so convincingly. In that stretch, Jerome Brown emerged as a star, Jim Gladden and Dub Palmer as coaching legends, and Pasco as an also-ran.

Ironically, the score in that 1973 game also was the average score of the series over the 10-year winning streak: 28-8.

It was hard to maintain the fever with scores like 55-12, 26-6 (twice) and 47-16. The antics of overzealous fans, which had threatened the series in the earlier years, no longer were prevalent. Pasco had new opponents to worry about in the Southwest Football Conference with Bartow, Auburndale, Haines City, Mulberry and Lake Wales. And Zephyrhills emerged as the top rival.

"It started slowing down in 1974," said Mike Bechtelheimer, the quarterback on that '73 Hernando team who now runs Beck's Radiator Shop in Brooksville.

"They got more police involved. And we were winning."

The game in 1973, then, marked the beginning of the end for Pasco in that decade. Coming into the game, both teams were 2-2. The Pirates were nicked up, playing without star receiver Frank Craig (his son now starts at quarterback for the Pirates) and with an injured Thomas. But the Pirates still had a huge edge in size and had enough speed to stay with the Leopards.

Hernando coach Gladden, now an assistant at Florida State, didn't bring his team to the stadium to warm up. Instead, he lined up 11 helmets across the field in kickoff formation and ushered his troops off to a nearby field to warm up in the dark.

"He took us to a nearby field where the band used to warm up, about two blocks from the stadium," said Tim Jinkens, who runs the Red Mule Pub in Brooksville and played on the junior varsity team that year. "Then we warmed up in the dark. There were always little mind games like that."

Lester Brown, who was nicknamed Chubby, scored first for the Leopards on a 5-yard run. With 5:11 remaining in the first half, Hernando doubled its lead when Bruce Dodge blocked a punt and Howard Blount picked it up and scored from 23 yards out to make it 14-0.

Thomas, who almost didn't play because of an injured groin, got Pasco back into it single-handedly. He keyed a 67-yard drive with a pair of fourth-down runs, then capped it with a 7-yard touchdown run. A two-point conversion pass made it 14-8 at the break.

If you want to pick a play that started the 10-year Hernando run, how about Brown's 62-yard run in the third quarter that essentially put the game away?

"He broke our back," said Thomas, who ran for 112 yards. "That's the one play I remember. It was the Statue of Liberty play. I saw Brown get the ball, and I was the last guy who could stop him. I would have run him down, but somebody cut me down. That really sticks in my mind."

Bechtelheimer remembers it well too. He dropped back to pass "and slipped the ball in Lester's back pocket."

"Pasco chased after me until I showed them I didn't have the ball," Bechtelheimer said. "All my family told me they thought I was going to get killed. The play worked like a dream."

More like a nightmare for Pasco. The loss dropped it to 2-3. According to quarterback Clark Ghiselin, the team was poorly coached and even more poorly unified. The 1973 game was the last for him. He quit the next day because of coach Tate Marsh.

"He was a nightmare," said Ghiselin, who manages a Citrus processing plant in Fruitland Park north of Leesburg. "We were listed in the state rankings after two games, which was something. It was a senior-dominated team with terrific linemen and terrific backs. We really expected to be the breakthrough team. But there was dissension among the coaches and it rubbed off on the players. There was nothing close to unity on that team."

Well, almost nothing. Thomas and some of his teammates had had enough. Marsh had kicked his assistants off the school bus and closed the windows Friday night to deliver a seething tirade to his troops, "telling us we s---ed," Thomas said.

On Sunday, the disenchanted Pirates met and went to the local corner store to buy poster board and markers. They made up a series of signs saying the football players were on strike and taped them up all over the school. Monday, Marsh confronted Thomas, who denied any knowledge of the strike. Tuesday, after a meeting between the players and the principal, the strike was averted.

Meanwhile, Hernando was very unified. Gladden, who left in 1975, had turned the program around and made the Leopards the dominant team in the series. Marsh was fired a year later and returned home to Alabama.

And the programs went in opposite directions.