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  1. Sports

Tampa football teams have high hopes for playoffs

TAMPA — It's playoff time, folks.

It's no surprise that the field includes Plant, Robinson and Hillsborough. And Tampa Bay Tech has grown accustomed to making the postseason in recent years.

Add a very sound Tampa Catholic to the mix, and you have five central/south Tampa squads that all have hopes of going deep.

All kickoffs are at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Class 8A: Orlando Freedom (7-3) at Plant (9-1)

This one might look like a cakewalk based on the teams' respective playoff histories, but Freedom is talented. While Plant has a stunning stretch of four state titles in the last decade, Freedom is beginning just its second trip to the postseason.

But this season's Freedom team won seven straight at one point, and gave top-ranked Dr. Phillips a decent contest before falling 27-14.

The Panthers come in buoyed by last week's 26-24 win against Robinson, where quarterback Aaron Banks rallied Plant for a go-ahead drive.

Plant fans who also happen to pull for USF will want to watch for Bulls' commit Jeff Badet, Freedom's all-county receiver. Senior Kevin Maurice is the defensive standout and Lee Grant is a danger from both the receiver and defensive back positions.

Speaking of Dr. Phillips, that's the team Plant would likely meet next week if it wins. Dr. Phillips (10-0) is taking on Wharton in the opposite region quarterfinal.

Class 7A: Tampa Bay Tech (7-3) at Durant (10-0)

The Titans face a very like-minded team in the Cougars. Both teams love to pound the ball right at you. Durant's fullback, Jamarlon Hamilton, has surprising breakaway ability, while Chris Atkins is the speedster who generally gets the ball on the edges.

However, it would be unfair to label TBT a one-dimensional offense, as sophomore Deon Cain averages around 140 yards passing per contest.

Richard Benjamin is the rarity for the Titans, a player that leads his team in both rushing and receiving yards.

Durant went undefeated for the first time in school history, and some predict the Cougars can surpass their best year, a state semifinal performance in 2003.

Class 6A: Osceola (7-3) at Hillsborough (8-1)

Hillsborough has put together one of the most solid campaigns of any area team, but for some reason have slipped under the radar. Again this week, the opponent is really more of a "story" because of how the Warriors got into the playoffs.

Osceola started off the season 1-3, but then, admittedly against a weak schedule, piled up six wins in a row. With a wing T offense, the Warriors average nearly 40 points a game. And Hillsborough won't be able to key in on one running back due to the Warriors' rotation. Then again, Hillsborough's defense is stout, boasting a shutout of Armwood to its credit.

And Dwayne Wilson has quietly become a steady leader at quarterback for the Terriers, who should win even if it means enduring some frustrating moments.

Should it advance, Hillsborough's second-round matchup will a barn-burner either way. The Terriers would host either Armwood or undefeated Largo.

Class 5A: Port Orange Atlantic (8-2) at Robinson (9-1)

So, is it possible that the Knights could suffer their first loss after a 9-0 start, and have that loss be the most impressive result of their 10 games?

Absolutely. Head coach Mike DePue, going into his final playoff stretch, surely doesn't want to hear it, but a last-minute 26-24 loss to Plant should be reason to get excited. That's because, theoretically, Robinson won't play as good a team in the 5A playoffs.

Atlantic got pulled into a three-way tiebreaker when it lost to Lake Nona in Week 9, but then three days later dominated the same team 14-0 in the quarter that sent the Sharks to the postseason. In that quarter, they intercepted Tucker Israel, central Florida's leading passer, twice.

Does that give Robinson cause for concern? A little, but the only concern here would be overconfidence. The Knights are, plain and simple, a better team. And as long as they aren't looking ahead to what they expect will be a second-round showdown with district rival Lakewood, they should win comfortably.

Alex Bell is Atlantic's dual-threat quarterback, throwing for 180 yards and running for 105 more in a tuneup win last week.

Class 3A: Tampa Catholic (7-3) at Fort Meade (8-2)

Tampa Catholic enters the playoffs on a bit of a down note, having lost to rival Jesuit 17-3 last week. Then again, that makes 13 straight defeats in the series, so Tampa Catholic should at least be accustomed to it.

And, of course, they left that game knowing their season would continue while the Tigers were done.

Tampa Catholic fans no doubt have their eyes on a possible second-round rematch with Clearwater Central Catholic, which humbled the then-undefeated Crusaders 27-7 in early October.

As for tonight's opponent, the Miners' 8-2 record was legitimate, with a narrow loss to Class 7A team Ridge Community. And if rankings mean anything, the Miners were seventh in the most recent 3A poll.

Fort Meade is not spectacular, just very good. And it's balanced, with quarterback Jay Smith throwing for about 100 yards a game and D.J. Clark (725 yards) and sophomore Ryan Fulse (484) behind him. Fort Meade certainly has history, winning the 1A state title in 2004 and making the finals as recently as four years ago.

If Tampa Catholic can avoid getting rattled by the unique environment at Frank S. Battle Field, the Crusaders should advance and likely head to CCC.