LARGO — With a few key plays in Friday’s season opener, a youthful Pinellas Park squad was able to change several question marks into exclamation points.
A clutch three-minute stretch leading into halftime transformed the Patriots from timid to dominant. It also changed the scoreboard, converting a 7-3 lead for host Largo into an eventual 31-14 Pinellas Park victory.
“We just (graduated headliners) (Nicholas) Syms and Lawrance Toafili; we have a lot of kids nobody knows,” an emotionally drained coach Kenny Crawford said after the win. “I’m so proud of them, so proud.”
The start of the change came with three minutes left until halftime and Largo deep in its own end of the field. Seizing on his opportunity, junior Jordan Jimenez sprinted through the line and hit the Packer quarterback’s arm, knocking the ball loose, then dove on the fumble in the end zone for a touchdown and lead the Patriots would keep the rest of the night.
“I was supposed to rush B gap and I saw A gap open, and that got me to the quarterback quicker,” Jimenez said of the first of two forced Largo turnovers. “After that sack, everyone just got turnt up and that got the momentum going.”
The surge could have stopped quickly if not for two huge plays from senior Nate Pouliot.
Prime field position after a Largo three-and-out led to a first-play, 16-yard Columbus Holston jaunt, but a Packer defender jostled the ball loose. Pouliot preserved the possession by recovering at the Largo 39 for his second biggest play of the drive.
The next saw Eric Jackson rise above a pack to haul in quarterback Brandon Brearley’s pass and sprint to an apparent touchdown. Packers safety Troy Holmes Jr. had other plans, spiking the ball from Jackson’s hands and sending it toward the back of the end zone. That’s where Pouliot sprung into action, falling on the loose ball before it crossed the line for a Patriots score and a 17-7 advantage with one minute left before the break.
“(Jackson) ran where I was supposed to run,” Pouliot said. “I just made sure the cornerback couldn’t get to him, and when the ball came loose, instincts kicked in.”
The Packers stayed in the hunt, turning a Collin Shaw fumble recovery into the second rushing touchdown from Holmes (220 yards, 19 carries, including a prior 77-yard dash to the house) and a three-point deficit, but couldn’t get closer.
Powerful off-tackle rushing from Holston (78 yards) set up scores from senior Aaron Mezei and Lamarkius Ward to lock down the victory.
“The thing that put us over the top is that when people started getting gassed, we plugged kids in and they played their behinds off,” Crawford said. “We played 25 different kids on defense and six or seven different players had touches at running back. These unproven players have now proven themselves, and to have that is phenomenal.”