TARPON SPRINGS — Whenever big plays needed to be made, East Lake made them.
In a crushing 1:42 stretch early in the second half of Friday’s Class 4M, Region 2 semifinal, the Eagles landed haymakers against visiting Plant on both sides of the ball, seizing momentum after a deadlocked first half and cruising to a 38-14 victory.
Taking a toss from quarterback Caleb Coburn around the left side on the second play of the third quarter, senior Luke Yoder cut inside his blockers and was off to the races, sprinting 57 yards to give East Lake a 21-14 lead just 39 seconds into the half.
Sixteen seconds later, Nik Mirabella stepped in front of a Panthers receiver and snagged his second interception of the night, returning it 40 yards to the Plant 13. Four Coburn carries later, the Eagles led 28-14.
“Nik’s a two-year starter at safety, he’s been close on a bunch of passes, knocked down a bunch … he’s really worked on his ball skills and securing picks instead of just breaking up passes,” East Lake head coach Bob Hudson explained. “I’m really happy for him.”
Coburn called the game-changing explosion “huge.”
“(Plant’s) proven to be a big second-half team. Coming out with that momentum — really putting them away — was huge to turn it around.”
Yoder concurred: “We just came out in the second half with a different mentality. We pounded it down their throats, got a stop, and kept our foot on the gas.”
Respecting a strong Plant secondary, East Lake committed to their running game. Behind guards Austin Huff and Aiden Byrne, tackles Devonne Barry and Connor Thomas, center Lucas Snyder and tight end Andrew Sammons, the Eagles rolled to 371 yards on the ground.
“All of our linemen are great. They come downhill and just want to fight so bad,” said Coburn, who rushed for 135 yards and threw for 118 on 12-of-15 passing, including a toss to Brock Couch for a 10-yard touchdown.
“It’s important for us to play as a brotherhood,” said Yoder, who finished with 229 yards on 14 carries, including a 27-yard, second-quarter touchdown and a dazzling 97-yard romp in the fourth quarter that closed out the scoring.
Plant hung tough, matching East Lake’s early scores with a 37-yard pitch-and-catch from Trey O’Malley (170 passing yards) to Chase Jarrett and a 95-yard kickoff return from Jaquez Kindell, his fourth of the season.
But Plant (9-3) was shut down in the second half, gaining only 48 yards over the final 24 minutes.
“My hat’s off to our kids,” Hudson said. “All they do is play and play and play.”
He acknowledged that there are some things his team still needs to clean up, like its 132 yards in penalties, before next week’s region final against Ocoee.
“(Ocoee) is a talented, athletic team that’s going to come in and give us fits,” Hudson said. “We’ve got to prepare for them and try to do what we do best.”