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Coaches: Don't call it a curse

The final result is frustratingly familiar: one week into the regional playoffs, and Pasco County's football season is over.

The county's postseason appearance has been a cameo for three years straight and a one-week showing for six of the last eight years.

Three days after an abrupt end, coaches say the disappointing result isn't any curse, or an indictment of the county's overall level of play, but just another difficult opening round in the playoffs.

"When you get to the playoffs, all the teams are tough," said Wesley Chapel coach John Castelamare, whose team suffered its first loss of the year at home against Wauchula Hardee. "I don't think you can say Pasco County has a curse or any of that garbage, and I don't like hearing that kids want to blame it on our county. We knew (Hardee) was pretty good, but we felt like we had a 60-70 percent chance of winning. It'd be nice to play them again."

County teams have dropped eight of nine playoff games since 1998, but looking at the results, local schools are closing the margin by which they are eliminated from the postseason.

Before last week, the previous eight playoff losses were all by more than 20 points, and this season's three setbacks were all by 20 or fewer points. Those losses included a 7-6 game Land O'Lakes lost at Ocala Forest on a failed two-point conversion with no time remaining.

"I think Land O'Lakes did a heck of a job with Ocala Forest," Castelamare said. "I know John (Benedetto) is upset because they didn't get the win, but they played a good game. We look at the film from our game and see two or three plays that could have changed things."

Zephyrhills coach Tom Fisher, whose team got a surprisingly difficult opening draw in Tampa Jesuit, ranked third in the state, said part of the trouble for the Bulldogs and Wildcats was being placed in a very competitive region.

"We had one of the toughest regions in Class 3A, and we both came out of the weakest district in with two of the stronger districts to get there," Fisher said.

Indeed, the Class 3A, Region 3's four quarterfinal winners have a combined five losses: of the 24 regions in the state's six classes, none can produce a quartet with fewer losses. Zephyrhills lost to the No. 3 team in Class 3A, and had Wesley Chapel won, it would have faced the No. 4 team in undefeated Lake Wales.

What's more, two of the county's three teams opened the playoffs on the road, where teams are seeded as double-underdogs, facing a tougher team and doing so away from home. Home teams went 73-23 in the first round last week, defending their home field more than 76 percent of the time.

The county was supposed to find relief in a new district alignment that pitted Pasco against Hernando County's three teams instead of more difficult teams from Hillsborough County. That didn't show up on the scoreboard, however, as Pasco schools went 4-10 against Hernando teams, including a 1-8 mark against Central and Springstead.

Hernando County teams in turn went 3-6 against Citrus County, putting Pasco at the bottom of the North Suncoast in more than a geographical sense.

One way the county can improve its overall level of play is by playing tougher out-of-area teams, but scheduling demands make that difficult if not impossible.

County teams are required to play the other eight county teams as conference rivals, leaving just two games open, and when mandatory district games are factored in, there's little flexibility to make a team's schedule more challenging.

Land O'Lakes, Mitchell, Ridgewood and River Ridge had district engagements with Hernando and Springstead, leaving them no option for scheduling any other opponents.

The five county teams that did have the freedom to pick one opponent (Wesley Chapel, Zephyrhills, Pasco, Gulf and Hudson) encountered both the risk and reward that come with a scheduling decision.

For some teams, the 10th game was irrelevant _ for Gulf, its 35-0 loss to Springstead (6-4) represented the third shutout in its final four games. Hudson beat a team from Northgate, Calif., to open the year 2-0 before losing its next five.

Pick an unchallenging foe, and there's little to be gained but a victory, if that. Wesley Chapel beat an 0-10 Lake Placid team, which matched its season high for points in a 35-14 loss to the Wildcats. Zephyrhills provided Orlando Olympia with its only win of the season.

On the other hand, if you aim too high, it can backfire. Pasco was the lone team to use its free week to schedule a team that made the playoffs, and doing so cost the Pirates a playoff berth of their own. Had Pasco beaten a lesser opponent instead of losing 63-13 to South Sumter, the Pirates would have earned an at-large trip to the postseason.

"We play South Sumter because it's a great rivalry and a big gate," said Pasco coach Ricky Thomas, whose team won its previous three meetings with South Sumter. "Every year, it's been pretty close, but they were just too much for us this year."

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