ZEPHYRHILLS — No matter the accomplishments of the Zephyrhills football team the past few seasons — overcoming a recruiting scandal and numerous coaching changes, winning more games each season, inching closer and closer to the postseason — the
Bulldogs have been constantly reminded that they are not even the best team on the east side of Pasco County.
Not even close.
Over the past five seasons, it’s been arch-rival Pasco 223 points, Zephyrhills 31, turning the 9-Mile War into the 9-Mile Snore.
But this year, things have changed.
Wake up the rivalry, y’all. We might actually have a game tonight. Winner gets bragging rights and a ticket to the postseason. Loser gets a bitter taste in his mouth that lasts roughly 365 days.
“The playoffs,” said Zephyrhills coach Reggie Roberts, busting out a wide grin. “That’s what makes this one bigger.”
• • •
The rivalry started in 1941 with a Pasco shutout. The Pirates won the next 11 games, too.
It wasn’t until 1971 that Zephyrhills finally won a game, but there was no slowing down the mighty Pirates, who at one point led the series 22-4.
Then it got good.
Then it got nasty.
In 1988, before 6,700 fans on a trick play, quarterback Orion McCants caught a 36-yard pass from receiver Terrell Smith with seven seconds left for a classic Bulldog win.
In 1995, the 9-Mile War decided the district championship.
In 1997, Zephyrhills mayor James Bailey bet a case of water against Dade City mayor Charles McIntosh’s case of orange juice, and his family did not lack for Vitamin C the rest of the month.
In 1998, quarterback Jaime Sullivan transferred from Zephyrhills to Pasco and created an atmosphere described as “especially rancorous,” but the Pirates won.
Kenny Roberts ran for 200 yards in Pasco’s 1999 win, and in 2001, Justin Whitworth — nickname “Hillbilly” — caught a 50-yard touchdown pass with 50 seconds left to complete a Bulldog comeback from a 20-0 halftime deficit.
Back and forth it went, some years better than others.
But since 2006, when Dale Caparaso lost his Pasco finale to the Bulldogs, then apologized to his team afterward, the suspense has all but disappeared.
• • •
The road back to this point, where Zephyrhills has a chance and where the community cares again, has been a short but bumpy one for 1990 graduate Roberts, who never lost to Pasco as a player but has been unable to beat the Pirates as a coach.
Hired in 2010, his team enters tonight with a 7-1 record, better than Pasco (5-3) for the first time since 2006.
He has built a team that is, dare we say, faster and deeper than the Pirates.
“We have more speed,” said Roberts, and he knows just how important that is.
Every time you mention the embarrassingly lopsided scores, he quickly points out that Pasco had Josh Johnson and Trey Dudley-Giles and Janarion Grant all those years, and now, it doesn’t.
He, however, has Devon Brockington and Jaylen Pickett and Jordan Roberts and quick, speedy youngsters we haven’t even heard about yet.
“For the first time, it’s going to be more competitive,” he said.
• • •
Zephyrhills standout Jordan Roberts says he is looking for some payback. For all the bad losses and for last year, when the county was alerted to some residency issues involving a few players — himself included — that they are convinced originated from Dade City.
“That was tough to take,” he said, because Zephyrhills players think they could have given the Pirates a game instead of enduring the series-record 56 points Pasco put on the scoreboard.
Stir in the postseason implications, the rivalry and all the pub the Pirates have earned over the years, and there are plenty of reasons for Zephyrhills to take out some frustration on their neighbors and, in some cases, relatives.
Yes, there is no other rivalry in Tampa Bay more unique, none that can be best explained by a forest of family trees stretching over 9 miles.
Dozens of players in tonight’s game have had cousins, brothers, uncles, fathers and grandfathers play in the 9-Mile War.
Heck, Reggie Roberts and his defensive coordinator, Booker Pickett, played in it, and Pasco quarterback Grant Starling’s father, grandfather and great grandfather did as well.
Youth-league teammates, friends, cousins, all banging heads tonight.
“On game day,” said Brockington, “it’s hatred.”
And it’s special.
This year, extra special.
“Ohhhhh, yeah,” said Brockington. “Every year I’ve played Pasco, it’s been big, but I think this is the year it’s going to be just, ridiculous. Both sides full, people can’t walk …all that type of stuff.”
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.