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DRAGONS USE PLAN B TO WIN

Rain forces Jefferson to ditch the air attack. So it stays on the ground for a playoff victory.

This week, the Times' preps staff reflects on the best high school sporting event each writer covered in the 2009-10 school year.

Class 3A region football final, Dec. 4: Jefferson 35, North Marion 6

Sometimes, it's not the final score that makes a great game. Instead, it's the ingredients that lead to the outcome that make it memorable, as in Jefferson's victory at North Marion on Dec. 4.

Earlier in the season, I had seen the Dragons at their highest and lowest.

The high: their emotional one-point win over rival Hillsborough in the season opener, a game that saw quarterback Quentin Williams run for an all-or-nothing two-point conversion through the heart of the Terriers linethen bawl in the end zone, overcome with emotion.

The low: two Fridays later, when eventual state champ Plant handed Jefferson a 33-point defeat at Dads Stadium.

One thing to know about last year's Jefferson team: It was fueled by emotion. It came back from second-half deficits to earn wins over Hillsborough, Lakewood and Spoto. And that junior-laden team - most of the players still reeling from the shooting death of C.J. Mills two years ago - felt something special was pushing it through the playoffs.

But the region final was a different task, both taller and tougher. After two home playoff wins, the Dragons trekked north on I-75 for nearly two hours to face a Colts team that had advanced to the state semis three of the past four years.

The team bus turned off Exit 358 north of Ocala with a plan to run a no-huddle offense that would, hopefully, jolt the Colts out of their comfort zone. Instead, the Dragons were greeted in the desolate town of Sparr by a dark downpour and stadium packed with fans wearing camouflage jackets and shaking milk jugs full of pennies.

There was no way the Dragons could win through the air. So in its defining moment of the season, Jefferson grinded it out on the ground, scoring five rushing touchdowns.

Williams, the eventual Times All-Suncoast offensive player of the year, had his most clutch game far away from West Tampa. Jefferson converted 11 third and longs, including runs of 20, 27 and 32 yards by the especially slippery Williams.

The Jefferson defense did its job as well. The Colts recorded only five first downs and never got inside the Dragons 30.

Jefferson's resurgence was characterized by its fleet passing attack. But on this night, the Dragons won in the trenches, emerging victorious with mud-covered uniforms.

Before the game, Williams told his team about going to another stadium and making the opposition turn its lights out for the season. After the game, waterlogged, I retreated to my car to file a game story with the only light coming from my headlights.

It was, however, the brightest night for these Dragons, when they again became a state title contender.

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.

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FAST FACTS

Other contest-of-the-year candidates

Games that almost made Eduardo A. Encina's final cut:

1. baseball region final: King 2, Seminole 1: Unlikely Lions advanced to their first state tournament backed by the arm of ace Devin Smith then lifted longtime coach Jim Macaluso onto their shoulders in front of a packed house.

2. Football: Jefferson 15, Hillsborough 14: In the season opener, quarterback Quentin Williams won it with a late two-point conversion.

3. state Baseball final: Pensacola Pace 6, Armwood 5: Would be higher had the local team won. But this eight-inning thriller encapsulated the fight of a No. 4 district seed that came so close to winning a state championship against the nation's No. 2 team.

4. State Volleyball final: Plant 3, Winter Park 1: In this reporter's eyes, the bay area's best team in any sport wrapped up a 29-1 season with its fourth straight state championship.

5. Girls BASKETBALL: Jefferson 63, Tampa Bay Tech 39: Dragons junior Laurie' Beaty gave the best individual scoring performance of the season, dropping 25 points in a rout of one of the county's top teams.

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