PALMETTO — Losses to Palmetto ended each of the past two seasons for Pinellas Park. Friday’s 27-7 season-opening loss possessed no such finality.
Instead, it merely illuminated how much different this season will be and how much work looms for the Patriots.
“Our goal is district play,” Pinellas Park coach Kenny Crawford said. “We lost a ton of guys from last year’s season. This is like a preseason game, and we front-loaded our schedule with great teams.”
Both the host Tigers and the Patriots harbor playoff aspirations but kicked off the season without a dress rehearsal: Their preseason games were rained out last week. Palmetto, however, returned experienced skill position players — outside of quarterback — and a veteran defense anchored by a deep secondary.
In contrast, Pinellas Park took the field searching for replacements for graduation losses and, unexpectedly, three high-profile transfers: senior starting quarterback Brandon Coppola, senior linebacker AJ Mathis (last year’s leading tackler) and senior running back Derek Bryant (second-leading rusher). The absence of a preseason game was evident.
“We have a lot of first-year starters, and we made some first-year mistakes — with the bad (punt) snap and the fumbles, some mishandling of things,” Crawford said. "All are things that can be cleaned up. But (Palmetto) was a little bit more polished than we were.”
The losses put the focus on offense squarely on the pads of senior running back Lawrance Toafili, a Florida State commit. Toafili didn't disappoint, rushing for 106 yards, including a 40-yard, third-quarter touchdown, on 20 carries.
But the search for companion pieces to alleviate the burden on him continues.
“We did a lot of good things,” Crawford said. “Our quarterback (Brandon Brearley) did some good things; he did some bad things. We had a couple of fullbacks do some good things. We had some receivers step up. We are going to be okay."
The Patriots’ defense, however, seized the spotlight Friday. The defensive line and speedy read and pursuit skills from the linebacker corps frustrated Palmetto’s run game and held the Tigers to 146 yards passing — 34 through the game’s first 30 minutes. Palmetto’s scoring drives — mostly set up by special teams returns or turnovers — covered 13, 34, minus-1, 0 and 37 yards.
"(The defense) did a great job; we gave (Palmetto) too many chances," Crawford said. "You throw enough bait in the water, they're going to catch fish, and we let them keep throwing bait. Too many short fields. Too many turnovers."
The Patriots were doomed, however, by those mistakes.
A fumble on the game's second snap resulted in a 6-yard loss and negated a 6-yard first down run by Toafili. The play was a harbinger.
An interception return set up Palmetto’s first touchdown — a 13-yard strike from Xavier Williams to Curtis Thomas. The two hooked up in the game’s closing minutes for a 37-yard score after Pinellas Park turned the ball over on downs. A bad Pinellas Park punt snap deep in its territory gave Palmetto a 20-7 lead early in the fourth quarter when Williams fell on the ball in the end zone.
Rafael Gonzalez completed Palmetto’s scoring with 43- and 33-yard field goals. He missed a 53-yard attempt and a 32-yard try. Both successful field goals were set up by short punts and subsequent returns. In all, Pinellas Park committed four turnovers and fumbled six times.
Notes: Pinellas Park plays at Lakewood next week. Palmetto plays host to rival Manatee. ... Pinellas Park’s Dorian Palardy was injured when he was hit unaware during a punt return. Though he walked off under his own power, he was taken to the hospital with a suspected concussion and did not return.