ST. PETERSBURG — For 38 minutes of Friday’s Class 4A region semifinal, Tampa Catholic controlled Lakewood on both sides of the ball, grabbing a lead that felt larger than the actual 14-point spread.
Then the Spartans unleashed Artez Hooker in the wildcat, got a huge interception from Aumhryaun Brown, and amazingly tied the score in a two-minute span of the fourth quarter.
With the defenses and special teams stepping up, the game went into two rounds of overtime before senior Nic Navarro overcame bizarre circumstances on the previous play to drill a 34-yard field goal to lift the Crusaders to a 17-14 victory.
Navarro had missed three field goals earlier while dealing with the loss of regular holder Jacob Chellew to a knee injury. But the senior returned to help Navarro pump through a 20-yard field goal in the second overtime only to have it erased by a Lakewood penalty prior to the snap. Tampa Catholic’s post-play celebration drew a 15-yard flag but Navarro split the uprights.
“To be honest with you, I was surprised he was back in the game,” Crusaders coach Jeris McIntyre said. “I didn’t even know it, but he’s a senior who was fighting his butt off and it was good to have him back on defense and as holder.”
Navarro concurred, saying: “After my second miss, I needed my man to hold the ball for me. At the end of the day, we got the job done.”
Tampa Catholic (7-2) was doing against Lakewood (8-1) what other teams couldn’t — sustaining punishing drives on offense and playing shutdown defense. Tampa Catholic owned the ball for 17 first-half minutes to earn its 14-0 lead on a 7-yard run from sophomore Tone Hill (66 rushing yards) and junior Jaquise Alexander’s 5-yard return of the first of two Cole Essek blocked kicks, this one a punt.
“We watched film and saw that (Lakewood’s) running game was the only thing that was effective, so we worked hard to shut it down,” said Essek, who also blocked a PAT and added a sack and nine tackles as defensive end.
But when the Spartans unleashed Hooker at quarterback, the momentum changed with every yard he churned out, scrambling for 78 in the fourth quarter. “Artez did a great job,” Lakewood coach Cory Moore said. “We had three opportunities to win it. We just didn’t seal the deal and we’ll have to learn from this experience.”
The first chance was with six seconds left in regulation where a 16-yard field goal was blocked. Lakewood’s overtime possessions ended on a fumble recovered by DD Snyder and a fourth-down stuff at the 1.
Tampa Catholic was picked off by Mike Evans on its first try but survived crazy momentum swings to finally seal the deal.
“This is great,” McIntyre concluded of the rebound against a Spartans team that eliminated the Crusaders from the postseason last year. “For a young team like this, with lots of freshmen and sophomores, to win this game against one of the best teams in the state is great.”