LARGO — In the days leading up to its Class 3M region semifinal against East Bay, Largo coach Marcus Paschal was reminded time after time of the caliber of defense the Packers would have to get past in order to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
Entering Friday’s game, East Bay had shut out nearly half of its regular-season opponents. Paschal, a former NFL safety who prides himself on the defensive success of his team, knew the Indians were about to meet their match.
East Bay learned that lesson quickly.
The Indians had turnovers on back-to-back drives in the first quarter, as Largo took an early lead it would never relinquish on the way to a 28-12 victory. By the end, Largo’s defense had recovered seven turnovers.
“I don’t know (if I expected) seven turnovers, but I knew our defense was going to come to play,” Paschal said. “All week we heard about their defense, but the thing that we take personal on this side of the bridge, we play defense at Largo.”
Even though East Bay turned the ball over three times in the first half, Largo (9-2) led by just one going into the break. The Packers scored their lone first-half touchdown when cornerback Marcus McCluster picked off East Bay (10-2), returning it 10 yards to help set up quarterback Jeremy Thomas’ 9-yard touchdown run.
Late in the second quarter, East Bay quarterback Nathan Carter found his stride, stringing together several completions, including one to wide receiver Aiden Showers for a 15-yard touchdown. The Packers blocked the ensuing extra point.
From there, things only went downhill for the Indians.
East Bay lost a fumble on its first drive of the second half, and the Indians would have three more turnovers before the night was over. Largo recovered that fumble, and moments later, Thomas was in the end zone again following a 4-yard run.
He’d have another, his third score of the night, after Largo blocked a punt later in the quarter, giving the Packers a short field with which to work.
“My line did really good (Friday),” said Thomas, whose three rushing touchdowns gave him eight for the season. “I put everything on them, and they brought it out, and they showed it (Friday). I’m pretty proud of them for that.”
With less than four minutes remaining, the Packers ahead by two scores, linebacker Zayvion McCluster intercepted East Bay backup quarterback Braxton Maenza — who replaced Carter after he went down after a roughing-the-passer penalty against Largo — to all but seal the deal.
Just to be sure, on the very next play, running back Chase Green raced 62 yards for a Packers touchdown.
Largo will move on to play Jesuit in next week’s region final. To Paschal’s knowledge, it’s just the fourth time in nearly a century that the Packers have made it to the third round of the playoffs.
He plans to mark the occasion with a big meal.
“This has been uncharted territory for a while,” Paschal said. “I said, ‘Look, let’s make history fellas, Let’s eat turkey together.’ I’ve never had turkey with my football team. That’s what we’ve been preaching the last couple weeks. We’ve made it, but the job’s not done.”