This week, the Times' preps staff reflects on the best high school sporting event each writer covered in the 2009-10 school year.
Football, Sept. 4: Countryside 34, Boca Ciega 26
Countryside and Boca Ciega entered the 2009 football season on different trajectories.
On paper, the Cougars were one of the best teams in the bay area. A hulking offensive line paved the way for talented tailback Alton Taylor, who went on to rush for just shy of 2,000 total yards. Jimbo Chmelik, a heady veteran, returned at quarterback with a stable of sure-handed receivers.
Boca Ciega, meanwhile, had lost 14 starters from a squad coming off a 3-7 season. Returning quarterback Shaquille Bradford showed flashes of brilliance as a sophomore in 2008, but they came far too infrequently.
It was expected Countryside would showcase its offensive talent, and the Pirates would have little in the way to stop them. And through the first 20 minutes, that's how it played out.
Taylor gashed the Pirates defense, rushing for 4, 5 yards at a time. On the Cougars' third drive, Taylor, from 32 yards out, bounced off left tackle then cut back inside to paydirt for a 10-0 Cougars lead.
With 8:46 left before halftime, Taylor scored again, and, as expected, Countryside was up 17-0.
But there was a glimmer of hope for Boca Ciega. Behind Bradford's ability to scramble and throw on the run, the Pirates picked up chunks of yards on their second drive, but consecutive penalties stalled the offense at midfield. On another drive, Bradford found an open receiver behind the defense on third and 21, but the junior's pinpoint pass couldn't be hauled in.
A 31-minute lightning delay gave Boca Ciega a chance to regroup.
After another William Griswold field goal, the Pirates scored a touchdown just before the half to make it 20-6.
Jocquel Skinner opened the second half with an 89-yard kickoff return to put Boca Ciega in business at the Cougars 9, but the Pirates turned it over on downs.
Countryside marched 96 yards in 12 plays, capped by Taylor's third touchdown.
Still, the Pirates never quit.
Bradford threw a 25-yard touchdown strike to Jovontae Johnson early in the fourth to cut Countryside's lead to 15 points, but the Cougars answered, Taylor outsprinting the defense for a game-sealing 36-yard touchdown.
At least it seemed to seal the game as I started formulating my story, centered around Countryside's offensive brilliance.
In desperation, Bradford converted on fourth and 6 around midfield then three plays later found Johnson for a 20-yard touchdown to make it 34-18 with 3:45 left.
Boca Ciega squibbed the ensuing kickoff, and Countryside couldn't control it, giving the ball back to the Pirates. In two plays, Bradford had the Pirates in the end zone again, and his two-point conversion completion to Johnson made it a one-score game.
Again, the Cougars appeared to have locked the game up by recovering the Pirates' onside kick with less than two minutes left, but they couldn't run out the clock.
Boca Ciega got the ball back with 40 seconds remaining, and Bradford connected with Bobby Coston for a 66-yard touchdown.
But in a theme that haunted the Pirates all night, the score was called back for a penalty. Bradford moved the offense to midfield but ran out of time.
Interviewing then-Countryside coach John Davis after the game, I remember thinking the veteran looked like he had just watched lightning strike the very spot he had been standing 30 seconds earlier.
The Cougars were lucky to escape Beauchamp Stadium with a season-opening win.
And I had been that lucky to stand on the sidelines during one of the greatest almost comebacks I had ever witnessed.
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Other contest-of-the-year candidates
More games that almost made Bryan Burns' final cut.
1. Girls tennis, Danielle Collins (Northeast) d. Akilah James (Gibbs): Collins loses five of the first six games before rallying to win 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 for the Class 3A overall singles title and finish the season undefeated.
2. Boys soccer, Palm Harbor University 2, Miami Killian 1: In a span of two minutes, PHU goalkeeper Josh Paul makes the save of the season, and teammate Ben Sweat follows by dribbling through half the Killian team for a jaw-dropping winner.
3. Softball, Pinellas Park 4, Seminole 3: Pinellas Park falls behind 3-0 early, but Sara Nevins' RBI single in the bottom of the seventh gives the Patriots their first playoff victory.