At the beginning of this season, all Sam Roper expected _ hoped for, to be honest _ was a winning season.
His young and inexperienced Seminole squad was coming off a 2-8 campaign and hadn't earned a district playoff berth in two decades. And it didn't look too promising for this year.
"All we wanted was an opportunity," Roper said.
Now, despite an overall record of 4-4 entering this week, Roper's Warhawks have it.
A win at Clearwater tonight will give Seminole the District 9, Class 5A crown and its first trip to the playoffs since 1976.
But Roper knows it won't be easy.
"It's been an up-and-down season for us," Roper said. "We do have some youth at some key positions and we've had some nicks and bruises.
"Basically, we just haven't hit on all eight cylinders this year."
That was evident last Saturday at East Lake, where the Warhawks managed just 53 yards on the ground and 49 yards through the air as the Eagles downed them 48-0. Roper admitted it was hard to keep his squad from looking ahead to this week's district showdown, and that was all-too-evident on the field.
Clearwater, meanwhile, is still approaching its peak. Although just 3-5, the Tornadoes have improved steadily each week. More importantly, two of its three wins are in district contests.
Now riding a two-game winning streak, Clearwater is 2-2 in the district and will earn a third straight playoff berth _ despite its less-than stellar record _ with a victory tonight.
"We're young, but we've grown each week," said Clearwater coach Tom Bostic, who could net his 100th win tonight. "Now, we're in the same position we were last year."
In 1996, the Tornadoes entered their final district game, against Pinellas Park, in a must-win-to-make-the-playoffs situation. Despite a 3-5 record, Clearwater shut out the Patriots to advance.
The keys for tonight?
"Limiting mistakes," Bostic said.
And the Tornadoes will count on running back James Miller, who leads the team in rushing with 514 yards, and kicker David Hahn, who kicked all three field goals to shut out Boca Ciega last week, to keep mishaps at a minimum.
And for the Warhawks?
"Field postion and limiting turnovers," Roper said.
Seminole will rely heavily on senior signal-caller Willie Hoston, who has thrown for 550 yards and four touchdowns. The Warhawks' leading rusher, Deon Brown, has 449 yards and three touchdowns.
But the biggest key may be consistency. While Clearwater has consistently improved, Seminole has consistently played ping-pong with its performance.
"It's all going to depend," Roper said, "on which Warhawk team shows up tonight."