CLEARWATER — The players wearing the scarlet and gold of Clearwater Central Catholic may change from year to year, but one thing seemingly stays constant: an intense and disruptive effort on defense.
Facing off Friday night against a Wiregrass Ranch squad coming off of a Class 7A playoff appearance last season and fielding an all-senior offensive line, the Class 3A Marauders first played shut-down ball, then racked up three takeaways in rolling to a 28-7 preseason victory.
“Every time on defense, we want to come out and punch the other team in the mouth and set the tempo,” said senior Johnny Newton, a force on both sides of the ball for CCC. “We want to keep the tempo up every time, offense and defense. That's the plan.”
Newton's tempo was off the charts from the opening possession, racking up three early tackles for loss before turning a look-what-I-found interception into a 49-yard return that set up the Marauders' second score of the night.
“It surprised me,” Newton said. “I was going for the sack, I saw the quarterback toss the ball and it came right to me. It was unexpected but it was good.”
Senior Jordan Niles cashed in Newton's pick via a slashing 40-yard run to the house that ended the first quarter with a 14-0 CCC lead and started a workhorse outing for the Calvary Christian transfer.
While the Marauders offense struggled in the early going, Niles found his footing with authority especially in the third quarter, finishing with 149 yards on 22 carries.
“I’m used to that,” Niles said. “I get stronger as the game goes on. (Offensive line coach) Jerry Wunsch talked us up at halftime, got things figured out, and we got more successful.”
Wiregrass Ranch closed out the first half strong, stuffing a CCC goal-line threat and turning it into a 96-yard scoring march and a one-possession game. The combination of sophomore QB Rocco Becht — thrust into the starting role after the departure of Hunter Helton to Armwood — and senior wideout Keith Walker did much of the heavy lifting with a 35-yard bomb that got the Bulls to midfield and a pretty 15-yard fade pattern for their lone TD. In between, Becht hit junior Tyler Brueckner for a 17-yard gain on fourth and 14, but that would be the extent of Wiregrass’ offensive success.
“The defense made a great stop with three minutes left and we came back and scored, but we can’t wait to come alive. We have to come alive with 12 minutes left in the first quarter,” said Wiregrass Ranch coach Mark Kantor. “The defense played well once we made some adjustments, but we have to find a way to do better.”
CCC added interceptions from senior Tyler Barnett in the second quarter and from athletic senior Jack Del Rio in the third, as he climbed the ladder on the right sideline and turned the grab into a 41-yard pick-six and a game-clinching 21-7 advantage.
Newton wrapped up the night’s scoring with 2:28 left in the game, grabbing a short Zach Burrill toss on the left side, shaking off Tyler Mesnekoff’s hard hit at the 5 and battling his way to pay dirt.
“I'd say I'm a little like (Rob Gronkowski),” Newton said with a smile of his physical, athletic play. “Not as big though. Coach put me in at tight end and I wanted to seal the deal.”
Adding fullback Trever Dorris’ 9-yard dive to open the night’s scoring, CCC showed the potential to make another deep playoff run even with a retooled offense.
“We’ve got to work out the kinks, get together with our offensive line and get down out game plan for Berkeley Prep (this Friday),” Niles said. “We have to see how their defense runs, get our reps in practice and get ready for the game.”