CLEARWATER — Nothing like blinding rain and a tornado warning to turn a team’s fortunes around.
When the tropical storm bearing down on the Panhandle brought its damage to Clearwater on Friday night, Clearwater Central Catholic was struggling, seeing a 14-point lead slowly disappear to Class 4A power Fort Lauderdale University School as the third quarter ended.
But after the hour-long break, the Class 3A Marauders were a changed team. A running game that was stifled was striking for big yardage. A defense that yielded big plays early not only shut down standout quarterback Nick Vattiato but forced key turnovers. The result was a runaway 36-15 victory that strengthens CCC's pursuit for a postseason berth.
“I told the guys that the whole purpose of us building this schedule was to get to this opportunity right now,” Marauders coach Chris Harvey explained of a slate featuring six teams currently in the playoff picture, including the visiting Sharks, who were top-ranked in the state in 4A. “A lot of people didn’t understand why I’d go this extreme, but it showed (Friday).”
CCC (6-3) came out on fire, halting a promising U-School opening drive on a Tyler Barnett sack, then leaning on senior Jordan Niles (160 rushing yards but only 72 through three quarters) to drive 53 yards to the opening score on a 3-yard run.
Three plays later, senior Johnny Newton came in clean on Vattiato for a strip sack that classmate Harrison Thomas collected at the Shark 7-yard-line. Niles took the handoff on the next snap and, with the help of many of his friends, ground out the distance to the end zone.
But as the rain intensified and lightning flashed over the Gulf, the Marauder offense started to struggle (five straight punts and a lost fumble) while University (6-2) found itself, ironically, by throwing through the saturated air.
The Sharks' passing game flourished in a big way after punter Brandon Inniss juggled a snap, saw CCC retreating to block and surprised the hosts with a 14-yard first-down romp. Vattiato (11 of 18 for 170 yards in the first half) then hit Inniss on a quick slant that turned into a 59-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.
And on the first play of its next possession, Vattiato lofted a pass to the deep right flat. Junior C.J. Cage, who received a huge block from freshman Vinny Pagano on the last CCC defender, turned the pitch-and-catch into a 68-yard scramble to paydirt.
The only thing keeping U-School from drawing even were extra points (Sebastian Przytula converted two PAT kicks, the Sharks had a kick blocked by Brad Seale and a two-point try stuffed on Giancarlo Margarejo’s sack). That changed when U-School turned CCC’s turnover into a 32-yard John Cannon field goal just over three minutes into second-half action.
But the game changed in the fourth quarter, after the Sharks missed a lead-padding 32-yard field-goal try.
Niles busted off runs of 51 and 31 yards while Newton turned into a closer with a 1-yard TD to give CCC an advantage it would not lose.
“Our offensive line got together and was able to figure out what was going wrong,” Niles said. “They made adjustments and kicked it in.”
“I felt my team really needed me, telling me we needed a sack, telling me I needed to lead the team,” Newton said post-game with tongue slightly in cheek. “I had to turn into beast mode and take over.”
Newton did as his second sack set up a clutch interception from junior Jarquez Green, which Newton cashed in with a 2-yard scoring run.
Then Niles picked off Vattiato (1 for 6, 6 yards in the second half), and three plays later, Newton busted off right tackle for a 49-yard romp to the house with 1:29 left in the game.
“I don’t know if we took our foot off the gas, but we took that punch, got through that break, and the way we finished was amazing,” Harvey concluded. “We wanted to be that team that flipped the switch and finished the game the way we needed to.”