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Seffner Christian shrugs off a sluggish first half

The Crusaders refocus, finding offensive balance down the stretch to knock off Zephyrhills Christian.

PLANT CITY — Seffner Christian coach Travis Puleo had a very simple message for his offense at halftime.

"We talked about three specifics: Focus. Fight. And finish," Puleo said.

The message was received loudly and clearly as the Crusaders pulled away to a 35-6 Class 2A, Region 3 quarterfinal victory against Zephyrhills Christian on Friday at Durant High School.

"We were not focused in the first half," Puleo said. "We let the emotions of the night get to us. We said 'enough of that.' We need to focus on what we need to do; we were beating ourselves."

On the scoreboard, Seffner Christian led 14-6 on the strength of two big plays.

Jkobe Jones returned the opening kickoff 90 yards and Michael Trigg returned an interception 92 yards for scores in the game's first eight minutes, giving the Crusaders that advantage.

However, Zephyrhills Christian made that lead feel only temporary by controlling the game. The Warriors ran 32 first-half plays to Seffner Christian's 16, held the Crusaders to 40 yards of offense and held the ball for nearly 19 minutes of the half.

And Zephyrhills Christian did that without star running back Tyler Davis, who injured an ankle midway through the first quarter and played only one snap afterward.

"(Davis) is the kid who can break it for us," Zephyrhills Christian coach Mike Smith said. "And we were driving on them. We were able to make blocks and run."

However, two turnovers negated those drives; the Warriors managed only a 13-yard scoring pass from Caleb Gaskin to Jonathan Dehart.

"We played a very good first half, but turnovers hurt us," Smith said. "We would be moving the ball and then penalties would kill us, and that has been the story all year."

On the other side of the ball, the story all year has been quarterback Isaiah Knowles. The Crusaders went 1-3 without him and haven’t lost since his return, which enabled Trigg to move back to receiver and spark a passing game to a 1,600-yard season. But that passing game was missing in the first half. Knowles went 1-for-7 for 7 yards as receivers stopped routes and dropped passes or Knowles was off-target.

After the halftime message, Knowles and the Crusaders went 4-for-5 for 92 yards, setting up scores on three of their four second-half possessions. The last completion was a 20-yard touchdown to Trigg.

With the passing game finally opening up the field, running back Justin Stubbs ran for 70 of his 102 yards overall after the break. He scored on runs of 5 and 26 yards.

“We needed the offensive line to take over the game in the second half, which they did a really good job of,” Puleo said. “Once we got our minds right, we were able to establish the running game along with the passing game. We played complementary football in the second half.”

With the victory, Seffner Christian’s eighth in a row, the Crusaders avenge their last loss, a 26-20 defeat to the Warriors in overtime. They advance to face Northside Christian, which had a bye. This will be the Crusaders’ second straight semifinal appearance.

Region football semifinals

All games 7:30 p.m. next Friday.

Class 2A, Region 3

• No. 3 Seffner Christian at No. 2 Northside Christian

• No. 4 Admiral Farragut at No. 1 Cambridge Christian

Class 3A, Region 3

• No. 5 Clearwater Central Catholic at No. 1 Berkeley Prep

Class 4A, Region 3

• No. 4 Clewiston at No. 1 Lakewood

• No. 3 Tampa Catholic at No. 2 Delray Beach American Heritage

Class 5A, Region 3

• No. 8 Chamberlain at No. 4 Jesuit

Class 5A, Region 2

• No. 4 Nature Coast at No. 1 Orlando Jones

Class 6A, Region 2

• No. 5 Clearwater at No. 1 Gaither

• No. 3 Lake Minneola at No. 2 Largo

Class 7A, Region 3

• No. 3 Manatee at No. 2 Mitchell

Class 7A, Region 2

• No. 5 Bloomingdale at No. 1 Armwood

• No. 6 Tampa Bay Tech at No. 2 Lakeland

Class 8A, Region 2

• No. 4 Steinbrenner at No. 1 Sarasota Riverview