CLEARWATER — Without a doubt, Clearwater is a team on a mission. And in Friday’s Class 5A, Region 3 semifinal, visiting Nature Coast Tech was just the unfortunate team that was in the Tornadoes’ path to a possible title.
Commanding in almost every phase of play, Clearwater jumped out to a 33-0 halftime advantage before cruising to a 40-14 victory and finally overcoming a barrier that tripped up the Tornadoes four times in the past 23 years: a region final berth.
The defense set the tone early, shackling the Sharks (8-4) to only 13 first-half yards, forcing punts on all five of Nature Coast’s possessions. Senior Aiden Bell (two sacks, two tackles for loss) was a beast for the Tornadoes (11-1) as was Arquis Reynolds (two stops for loss), junior Tristan Melton (sack, quarterback pressure) and senior Atzare Thompson (interception).
Sophomore Christian Cromer, who came into the game as the No. 2 rusher in the state with 1,900 yards, was held to just 43 on 18 carries. Cromer did throw for a 28-yard touchdown in the third quarter to Carlos Rodriguez, who also added a 36-yard run to the house in the fourth quarter.
Offensively, Clearwater was a bear to defend as both its running and passing games were on point.
Shuttling between tackle and fullback, senior Aaron Sanez was a blocking machine in an attack that produced 235 yards on just 29 attempts.
“I play where they need me,” Sanez said. “Once we establish the running game, it opens up everything in our offense. I love blocking upfield, making plays and seeing Efrem (Only) run far.”
Only ate up the open space, cranking out 160 yards of production and two touchdowns on 16 carries, as did Jarvis Boatwright (49 yards on three carries and a touchdown).
Quarterback Aidan MacLean (251 passing yards) continues his record-setting campaign, adding to his state-leading touchdown total (now 41) by hitting Gage Nix on a 22-yard scoring connection followed by a 34-yard bomb to C.J. Lee, the state-best 21st for the senior.
Snagging the pass that bounced off his chest, Lee said, “I think that discipline comes from basketball … my IQ level, being patient with the ball, knowing never to give up on a play.”
Lee (213 all-purpose yards) also did his part on special teams. Fielding a bouncing punt deep in his own territory with his back turned to the pursuit, the senior spun and took off. As the first quarter clock expired, Lee deftly navigated 91 yards to the end zone to bump Clearwater’s lead to a daunting 20-0 count.
“I got the bounce and saw they weren’t close enough,” Lee said. “The whole right side of the field was open so I ran to it. Maceo (Bennett) had a big block on a big kid that sprung me.”
“I feel we’re one of the best in-shape teams and it’s showing now,” said Clearwater offensive coordinator AJ Sattinger. “We have few players going both ways, we’re wearing teams out and we’re scoring a lot of points.”
The Tornadoes have scored 346 points in their last seven games.
“We take a lot of pride in getting this far,” Lee said. “We talk about going to the state championship but we’re also only worried about the game that’s in front of us. We play for the next game, the next team.”
Next up is a home date Friday against Sebring, a 29-0 shutout winner over Gibbs.