Many a Citrus County football fan will be watching what happens in Dade City tonight as the final pieces of the playoff puzzle come together.
For Citrus and Crystal River, playoff spots already have been secured. The Pirates locked up their second straight Class 4A, District 7 title two weeks ago with a win over Dunnellon while Citrus got a little help from its neighbor Lecanto. By virtue of the Panthers' win over Lake Weir that same weekend, the Hurricanes are safely in as the district runner-up.
Lecanto could create a three-way tie for second with Dunnellon and Citrus with a win over Crystal River next week and a loss by Citrus tonight at Lake Weir. However, the Hurricanes hold the advantage over both by virtue of wins earlier this year, and thus will complete one of the best turnarounds of the year.
As for their first-round opponent, though, it's safe to say the picture will either clear up considerably tonight or be thrown into total disarray.
Here's the way it works: If Class 4A No. 5-ranked Hernando beats Pasco tonight, as expected, then Citrus can look forward to a rematch with the Leopards Nov. 21 in Brooksville. If Pasco wins, then it, Hernando and Zephyrhills would square off in a three-way playoff Nov. 17. If that should happen, it's anyone's guess as to which team would come calling on Nov. 21.
One thing that bodes well for the Hurricanes should they meet the Leopards again is that no one short of Crystal River has played Hernando as tough. Granted, it was the first game of the season and it's safe to say the Leopards have improved considerably. But the Hurricanes at least had a chance to beat Hernando in the 21-15 loss.
Meantime, a Hernando win tonight also will clear up the picture for Crystal River, which would play No. 6 Zephyrhills in one of the best first-round matchups in the state. The Pirates proved they can respond in a playoff-like atmosphere with last week's 28-17 win over the Leopards, but whether they can repeat the heroics against the Bulldogs, a team they match up very evenly with, remains to be seen.
Well, enough of that playoff stuff. Let's take a look at tonight's matchups.
CITRUS AT LAKE WEIR: This shaped up as a huge game for the Hurricanes a month ago, but thanks to Lecanto it has become academic. For Citrus, though, it is still a key game. After a four-game winning streak that all but guaranteed a post-season berth, the Hurricanes have fallen on hard times and have lost two straight. The first was understandable. South Sumter had lost three straight and we all knew they were too good to lose four. But Leesburg? That one had to hurt.
"I really don't know what happened," Hurricanes coach Ken Berry said Wednesday. "I really thought we would have done a lot better."
The time for the turnaround is now. With a young but talented South Lake looming in the final week of the season, the Hurricanes need to get something positive going and don't want to enter the playoffs with a losing record.
Lake Weir is very beatable, though it possesses enough athletes to make things hard on Citrus should it oblige with mistakes and turnovers. Still, I think the Hurricanes are better than that. The pick: Citrus 28-21.
HERNANDO AT PASCO: Crystal River's win last week was impressive, but don't think for a second the Pirates want to see the Leopards again, except maybe in the state semifinals (the only time they could meet if Hernando wins tonight). Hernando is as good as advertised, and if a couple of things had gone differently, could easily have beaten the Pirates. Look for the Leopards to bounce back strong tonight with a big win over those other Pirates. The pick: Hernando 31-14.