WESLEY CHAPEL — Rendered temporarily irrelevant by a sobering moment in the third quarter, Wiregrass Ranch still improved to 4-0 on the season with a 34-7 victory against visiting Nature Coast.
The game was delayed about 20 minutes in the third quarter after Wiregrass Ranch junior Andrew Salum, on a run up the middle, lay motionless for several minutes after a direct hit to the head.
“Anytime you got a young kid on the ground, it puts a little scare in you,” said Wiregrass coach Mark Kantor.
Moving backwards and defenseless as he was being tackled to the ground, Salum took the brunt of helmet-to-helmet contact from another Nature Coast player, producing a frightening crack.
Salum went to the turf, and within 30 seconds Wiregrass coaches were yelling for calls to 9-1-1. Players from both sides took a knee as the stadium fell silent, but for a few emotional Wiregrass Ranch parents, one who had to be removed after hurling threats across to the NCT coaches.
A Pasco County Fire Rescue vehicle arrived approximately eight minutes after the incident. To a standing ovation Salum was carted off and received a big roar after giving a “thumbs up” motion just before he was placed in the ambulance.
“He was never out. He was alert the whole time,” said Kantor, adding that Salum indicated he was feeling “throbbing” pain in his neck. “I told him when he gets over there (to the sideline) you gotta give a thumbs up, he said, ‘Yeah I’ll do that.’ He had all movement in all extremities. He remembered everything. I think he’s got a pinched nerve, but I believe he’s gonna be all right.”
Clearly inspired, the Bulls scored seven plays later, with Grady Clower bursting through for a 21-yard TD run on fourth-and-short to give Wiregrass a commanding 27-7 lead late in the quarter. On the next defensive play, the Bulls’ defense produced a hard, but clean hit on quarterback Vaughn Sykora, and a swarming effort led by lineman Noah Wiseman and Isaiah Miller ended the drive.
Clower collected three touchdowns and sparked the Bulls’ running game out of the Wildcat formation. His 33-yard interception runback put Wiregrass up 13-0 early in the second quarter.
After the Bulls were held to to just 9 yards on 15 rushing attempts in the first half, the efforts of Clower (5-61) and Nick Gaziano (6-25 in the second) put Wiregrass at 122 for the game. Nature Coast (1-3), meanwhile, went in the other direction, going for zero yards in the second half after picking up 61 in the ground in the first.
Wiregrass had it going through the air early, as sophomore quarterback Rocco Becht threw for all but 30 of his 181 yards, finishing 9-of-12.
The Bulls gathered three interceptions, the others coming from Broden Guirl and Jonavon Tillis. After the Clower pick-6, Nature Coast went three-and-out on its next possession. But the Sharks hung in thanks to an Andre Dillard sack and Dedric Hall pick to help set up their first score. It was Hall’s making, as Sykora found the playmaker down the right sideline for a 48-yard gain to the 2, where Hall himself converted a run for 13-7.
But two plays later Becht drilled one over the middle to tight end Chris Daniel for a 45-yard touchdown.
A tremendous 36-yard catch by Keith Walker, who appeared pretty well covered by two Sharks, in the end zone made it 6-0 Bulls barely more than two minutes in. Walker, however, also left with an injury. Dylan Ridolph, the Bulls’ tremendous middle linebacker, also went out in the first half but returned to turn in another stellar effort.
“I just stepped in a little hole. There was a pop, and it hurt really bad for 10 seconds. Just taped it up and went back in,” said Ridolph.
He added that the Bulls were inspired after they felt Nature Coast celebrated the hit on Salum.
“Seeing what they did, and that they were actually celebrating something so underhanded, kinda lit a fire under me. Not to impose vengeance, but to make sure his sacrifice wasn’t in vain,” Ridolph said.
The best Nature Coast chance at a score came in the late going but was thwarted by a penalty and sack by Craig Kailimai. Nature Coast attempted 15 passes, and Walker’s two grabs covered 79 yards, but only three more were completed.
Anthony Trepen and Kinyatah Morgan combined to cover 60 yards on nine carries but on their 25 other rushing attempts (including sacks and fumbles) the Sharks went for minus-1 yard.