TAMPA — Wharton coach Mike Williams looked around the field on a Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago and noted that more than 20 of his players weren’t there.
“They are quarantining,” Williams said. “Contact tracing, positive COVID tests, whatever. The virus is causing us some issues.”
It was disheartening because the Wildcats, who have been steadily on the way up since Williams took over last season, were scheduled to play nationally ranked Jesuit the following Friday night.
Williams called it “a fantastic opportunity to see where we really are. We want to play on that next level, play teams like Jesuit. That’s where we want to be.”
But by that Wednesday, more players were out because of issues related to the virus.
“I would say 80 percent of our guys were not allowed to play,” Wharton receiver Cameron Cobb said. “It was so disappointing.”
The game was canceled, and the Wildcats had to read about how Jesuit frantically scheduled a game for that Friday against St. Thomas Aquinas, which at the time was ranked No. 6 in the country. The Tigers went on to beat Aquinas 24-21 and jump to No. 17 nationally.
Wharton could only wonder what might have been.
The Wildcats — who feature several Division I recruits, including linebackers Daveon Crouch (Boston College commit) and Booker Pickett Jr., and defensive backs Dijon Johnson and Jairon Dorsey — dominated Freedom 48-0 in their season opener but desperately wanted to see how they stacked up against a powerhouse like Jesuit.
After missing out on the Tigers, Wharton returned the following week to dominate Lennard 55-14. Still, Williams said his team was eager to “Get More,” which has become something of a battle cry for this year’s team.
The next step is Friday’s Class 7A, District 10 game at Wiregrass Ranch, which also has been frustrated by the coronavirus. The Bulls had their first two games postponed (Hernando) and canceled (Wesley Chapel) due to COVID issues at opposing programs.
Wiregrass beat Mitchell 21-6 last week, but the Bulls expect more of a challenge against Wharton (2-0).
“(COVID) has been tough on many, many people and teams, but one thing I’ve learned from coaches I respect is that it’s never perfect,” said Williams, who played at Plant, Southern Cal and in the NFL. “You have to always be evolving. Your mind has to keep adapting to the situation, because situations always change. So yes, we are adapting. It’s a great mindset to have in a pandemic.”
Expect tough play from both defenses on Friday, but especially Wharton, which has allowed only 105 total points in its last 12 games while recording four shutouts.
Wiregrass Ranch quarterback Rocco Becht, a four-star recruit, should give the Wildcats their toughest test in a long time. On the other side, Carson Mohler, a transfer from Plant City, is expected to provide plenty of spark for Wharton.
Either way, Williams said he welcomes the opportunity to play a big game against a quality opponent.
“We’re trying to teach these young men that you always have to evolve and adjust and seize on the opportunities when you get them,” Williams said. “That’s what we’re doing here. That’s the lesson we are teaching.”