WESLEY CHAPEL — In recent years, Wiregrass Ranch had its way with Wharton.
Not on Friday night. The Wildcats spoiled the Bulls’ homecoming with a 28-17 victory in a battle between Class 7A, District 10 unbeatens.
Wharton (3-0) scored two special teams touchdowns and got a defensive score late to seal its first victory against Wiregrass Ranch (1-1) since 2015. The Bulls had won the previous three meetings from 2016-18 by a combined 91-13 score.
The Wildcats trailed on three occasions until sophomore Arkese Parks produced the play of the game. After junior Jeremy Caruso’s 42-yard field goal with 8:57 remaining had given Wiregrass Ranch its final lead at 17-14, Parks took the ensuing kickoff from Caruso 97 yards for his longest career return — giving Wharton a 21-17 advantage.
Then with 1:56 left, junior Cameron Campbell intercepted a screen pass by Bulls senior quarterback Rocco Becht and returned it for a 15-yard touchdown — capping a Wharton defense that didn’t allow the Bulls to convert on third down in their final six attempts.
“We were down, so I was like, ‘If they kick it to me, I’ve got to return it to get back up,’ ” said Parks, who runs a 4.6 40. “I just had to make it happen. This (win) is real big, because of district and the playoffs.”
After a 7-all first half stalemate, Wiregrass Ranch took a 14-7 lead three plays into the third quarter as Becht (8 of 25, 187 yards, one interception) connected with junior Bryson Rodgers on a 76-yard scoring pass. A 9-yard touchdown run by senior Keith Morris later in the period got Wharton even again until Caruso’s field goal capped a 23-yard, nine-play drive that put the Bulls back on top.
Wiregrass Ranch junior Kenneth Walker scored the game’s first points on a 3-yard run on the first play of the second quarter. But with time winding down late in the half and the Bulls backed up to their end zone, Caruso was unable to pull down a high center snap in the end zone while in punt formation and senior Malachi Richardson fell on the loose ball for Wharton’s first touchdown with 1:29 to go.
“You can’t give up 14 points on special teams, especially when you’re in a quagmire and you’re trying to just control the ball and they’re trying to control the ball,” Wiregrass Ranch coach Mark Kantor said. “A (center) snap over the (punter’s) head turns into a score, and then a kick return for a score. You can’t do that ... not in a game like this.”