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No one’s treading familiar playoff turf in this group

Meet some of Tampa Bay's football postseason newbies.

This year's football playoffs are full of annual contenders — Plant, Armwood and Jesuit, to name a few — but the postseason is also new for these players and coaches.

Starting over

There were are a lot of adjustments Rory Hicks had to make after transferring from Countryside to Clearwater Central Catholic (9-0) in the spring.

The junior not only had to get used to a new team, but also a new set of opponents.

"When I was at Countryside, we played pretty much all public schools," Hicks said. "Now, I'm playing mostly private schools and there were some changes with that."

Hicks also was recovering from a broken tibia and fibula last year that forced him to miss the spring game.

Stronger, focused and injury-free, Hicks performed well this season and helped the Marauders go undefeated in the regular season for just the second time in school history.

Now, Hicks is in the playoffs, something he was not able to experience in two seasons with the Cougars.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to have to this chance to be in the playoffs and hopefully go far," he said.

Hicks has benefitted from a strong ground game. His biggest attribute is being careful with the football. He has thrown 12 touchdowns and just one interception.

"(Offensive coordinator) John Davis keeps telling me that he'd rather die than have me throw interceptions," Hicks said.

There are few adjustments for Hicks these days, even when it comes to preparing for a postseason opponent; Friday's is familiar foe Tampa Catholic.

"The good thing is we've already played Tampa Catholic and we have film on them," Hicks said. "We know what to expect."

“Honestly, anything short of the playoffs would’ve been a disappointment,” ZCA coach Mike Smith says. (Monica Herndon, Times)

First time's the charm

Zephyrhills Christian (7-2) started playing 11-on-11 football in 2015 as an independent. The Warriors joined the FHSAA this season and qualified for the playoffs as a No. 4 seed in Class 2A, Region 2.

Coach Mike Smith started the program in 2008. He always believed it would one day be an 11-man varsity sport. And he believes this regular season could have ended with a 9-0 record if not for close losses to Lakeland Victory Christian and Indian Rocks Christian. So he's not at all surprised his team is in the postseason and has a rematch with No. 1 seed Victory Christian.

"Honestly, anything short of the playoffs would've been a disappointment," Smith said.

Zephyrhills Christian does have playoff experience, but it's in 6-man and 8-man football. This will be the first time it has a shot at a full-fledged state championship. Because the opponent is familiar, and because it was a narrow loss the first time around, Smith said he is trying to downplay his team's first playoff appearance.

"We're trying to not make a big deal out of it," Smith said. "This is a confident group. We know we competed with (Victory Christian) the first time around and had chances to win. And we played so poorly against Indian Rocks (a 27-19 loss). If we win those two games then we're in first place."

None of this year’s Hernando players have ever experienced the postseason. Thanks to winning their district, the Leopards will host Friday night. (Loren Elliott, Times)

The four-year plan

When Bill Vonada took over at Hernando in 2014 after coaching at Springstead, his plan was to make the playoffs by 2017. That first season the Leopards were 3-6. Then came another three-win season followed by four wins.

It all came together this season. Hernando went 7-2 and is the No. 3 seed in Class 5A, Region 2. The Leopards will host No. 6 Clay.

"It's not just about me building something, it's about the players buying in to make it a total team commitment," Vonada said. "Guys are in the weight room, and other guys see that. It takes hard work to get to where we are."

Vonada took Springstead to the playoffs in 2012. The postseason will not be a new experience for him, but it will be for his players. Clay (7-3) may be a bit down this season, but it has plenty of recent playoff experience.

Vonada and the Leopards don't want this to be a one-and-done experience.

"It's been a journey to get here but now we start a whole other journey," Vonada said. "Our guys are happy to be here but we want to take the next step. It's going to be a tall order, but the game isn't played on paper."

Family over everything

Chamberlain's chant as the players broke huddle drew an inquisitive look from a former player attending practice. The alum wanted to know why they were shouting "1-2-3-4."

Chiefs coach Jason Lane corrected him. "They're saying 1-2-3-Foe."

Foe? Family over everything.

It is a motto Lane implemented when he took over the program in 2015.

"We've preached that you've got to have love for your family," Lane said. "I think that's biggest thing that's helped turn things around."

There was more bickering than love when Lane first took over. So he started getting rid of players who were more interested in individual goals.

That forced Lane to look for another quarterback during his first season. He found one in Tyler Riddell, a freshman at the time who was promoted from junior varsity.

The Chiefs took their lumps, going 2-8 in Lane's debut season. Last year, Chamberlain started 0-4 before reeling off five straight wins. The turnaround became complete this season. The Chiefs are 8-2 and in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Riddell has played a pivotal role. The junior has thrown for 2,375 yards, 30 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

"The players are starting to believe in themselves and what we're doing," Lane said. "They're starting to become a family."

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