The Jefferson Dragons have a new look. Also, a new outlook. Just in time, too.
"We're still alive," Dragons coach Darlee Nelson said. "The season is not over."
Maybe it once seemed that way. Last season, the Dragons were Class 5A state semifinalists. Quarterback Donald Caldwell was the state's 5A player of the year. Expectations were high.
This season, the Dragons (4-4, 2-2) haven't won the big games. But a home victory tonight over the Durant Cougars (4-3, 2-1) could create chaos for the 5A-11 runner-up playoff spot.
Durant could face a winner-take-all home game for the playoffs Monday night against Lakeland Jenkins (4-3, 2-1). But if Jefferson wins tonight, Durant will need to beat Jenkins just to force a three-way tie and stay in the playoff hunt (Durant-Jenkins was originally scheduled Sept. 26, but pushed back due to heavy rains).
What's more, Jefferson will practically field a new team tonight. Returning from season-long academic ineligibility are Charles McDonald, Greg Williams and Jermaine Miller _ the entire linebacker corps _ plus starting offensive lineman Marshall Napier and defensive back Corey Lang.
Due to academics and injuries, Jefferson had a 25-player team when it faced defending 5A state champion Lakeland in September.
"Now we can give our kids some rest, the ones who had been going both ways all the time," Nelson said. "And when our offense is on the field, we can get the defense together for a talk on the sideline. We haven't been able to do that because practically everyone is going both ways.
"We've had a lot of ups and downs this season. But the bottom line is, we've still got a chance (for the playoffs). If we take care of our business, we can sit back and cheer like crazy for Durant to beat Jenkins on Monday night. In the three-way playoff, anything can happen."
Particularly when your quarterback is Caldwell. He hasn't been the compelling force of seasons past, but Caldwell still commands the defense's attention with his big-play capability. He has been hampered with the smaller roster, plus a flurry of dropped passes. Still, he leads Hillsborough County in passing.
"He's still the leader," Nelson said. "He's our general, our go-to person. Our guys are getting open and Donald is getting the ball to them. We just have to catch it more consistently.
"But we've shaken that off. We're dwelling on the positives. We have our whole team back now, and we still can do some damage. We're grateful for the opportunity."