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Feud threatened long-running 9-Mile War football rivalry

Pasco coach Tom McHugh, alleging recruiting, wanted to cancel the annual grudge match with Zephyrhills. The county says that's not happening.
Pasco High coach Tom McHugh was worried his current players would react badly to facing their former teammates in the annual 9-Mile War. (Times file)
Published Jul. 11, 2018

The high school football rivalry between Pasco and Zephyrhills, known as the 9-Mile War, is the oldest in Pasco County and one of the longest running in Tampa Bay.

But for the past week, the 61st edition of the annual grudge match was in jeopardy after Pasco coach Tom McHugh threatened to cancel this fall's game, alleging recruiting by the Pirates' rival.

McHugh wrote a letter obtained by the Tampa Bay Times to Pasco County athletic director Matt Wicks, saying that he felt "ethically obligated" to drop Zephyrhills from the schedule based on developments this summer.

In the letter, McHugh said three of his players left to go to Zephyrhills. Quarterback Doug Crawford and running back Jamar Hicks have already transferred. McHugh said another quarterback, Dylan Wood, planned to follow.

McHugh said Crawford went through the proper channels to transfer, but accused Hicks and Wood of not living in the correct zone.

After Crawford transferred, McHugh sent an email to Zephyrhills administrators, saying he expected no more of his players to go there. McHugh attached his team's roster so Zephyrhills could identify any Pasco players upon arrival.

McHugh said Troy Hochstetler, a former Pasco assistant coach, is now at Zephyrhills and "knows all of our players. There should be no doubt if they go, ZHS knows who they are."

The feud reached Hatfield-McCoy status when McHugh decided he no longer wanted to play the game that often draws thousands of fans each season.

"This decision was not made lightly," McHugh wrote to Wicks. "I want you to understand that I/we don't want these players back at PHS, don't want trouble for anyone, players or ZHS officials. Just because no 'official rules' were deemed broken doesn't make what is being done right. When adults, parents, coaches, administrators turn a blind eye to blatant wrongs there is, in my opinion, a enormous problem with the way we are going about our business."

McHugh also said that he was fearful his players might retaliate after seeing their former teammates playing for their fiercest rival. The Florida High School Athletic Association has already placed Pasco on probation stemming from an altercation with Fivay that forced the teams' spring game to end early.

"In closing, I would also remind you that PHS is under a probational period next year," McHugh wrote. "If any problems occur we could have our FHSAA membership revoked. My experience tells me that if I take our team to play our players now at ZHS there will be a problem and to expect the players not to react is an unreasonable expectation."

Superintendent Kurt Browning said he understood that McHugh had concerns.

But he was adamant that those not interfere with the game. He settled the issue shortly after receiving the coach's weekend letter.

"The fact of the matter is the Pasco-Zephyrhills rivalry has been a rivalry for decades and decades," said Browning, a Pasco High alumnus. "It's bigger than Coach McHugh. It's bigger than (principal) Kari Kadlub. And it's bigger than superintendent Kurt Browning.

"We're going to play that game."

Attempts to reach McHugh and Zephyrhills coach Nick Carroll were unsuccessful.

No rivalry game in the county involves entire communities like this one. The mayors of Zephyrhills and Dade City place friendly wagers with each other on the outcome. There also is a plaque the winning team keeps for a year.

Pasco leads the series 40-20, but Zephyrhills has won the past three meetings by a combined 138-29.

Browning didn't brush off the recruiting allegations. The district will be taking a closer look at the specifics.

"We're going to do some address verification on the players that have been named in the letter," said Browning, promising action against any improprieties.

This is not the first time in recent years that players have left Pasco for other schools. The most notable? Auburn receiver Nate-Craig Myers to Tampa Catholic and Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to Tampa Bay Tech.

Times staff writer Jeff Solochek contributed to this report.