JACKSONVILLE — From the start of the season, Clearwater Central Catholic coach Chris Harvey thought his squad had what it took to make a run to the state championship game.
And in a barnburner of a Class 1M semifinal Friday at University Christian School, he was proven right.
Despite allowing the Fightin’ Christians more than 400 yards of offense, the Marauders’ defense stepped up when it counted most, and the offense took full advantage.
With 30 seconds left to play, sophomore quarterback Jershaun Newton lofted a perfect 16-yard fade pass to senior Nate Johnson III for the winning score in CCC’s 34-29 come-from-behind victory.
With sophomore Alan Woods draped over him, Johnson, the lone returnee from the Marauders’ last state semifinal appearance four years ago, managed to pull down the ball and complete a mind-boggling fourth-quarter comeback.
“(UCS) was biting down on the slant (pass), so we had to take a chance over the top,” said Johnson, the lone returnee from the Marauders’ last state semifinal appearance four years ago. “I was planning to get the ball in the corner of the end zone where nobody could get it but me. I just made a play, got my toes down (in bounds) and made the catch.”
Said Newton, “I saw the safety go to the middle of the field, and it was one-on-one with Nate. I knew he could beat the cornerback, so I threw it to him.”
University Christian School (11-2) opened the third quarter with a bang.
Senior Orel Gray (215 yards on 34 carries) rambled 44 yards off left tackle for a touchdown, the Christians forced a fumble on the ensuing kickoff that was recovered by Carl Thompson, and quarterback Dwayne Stuckey (200 passing yards) connected with senior Desirrio Riles (four catches for 123 yards) on a 29-yard TD toss that turned a seven-point deficit into a 22-14 lead.
Aafter a CCC three-and-out, UCS looked for the knockout blow but saw a touchdown taken off the board for the third time due to a penalty before the Marauders defense stuffed the hosts on downs, the first of two crucial, game-winning stops.
“With No. 1 (Newton), 2 (Andy Jaffe, unofficially credited with 19 total tackles ), 3 (Johnson) and 20 (Lenwood Sapp, who rushed for 56 yards), you always have a chance,” said Harvey.
Clearwater Central Catholic (12-1) cashed in on the first when an 18-yard lateral to Johnson combined with a pair of major UCS flags to set up Sapp for a three-yard TD run, slicing the deficit to 22-20 with 9:23 left.
Gray responded with an 88-yard TD return of the following kickoff — his fifth touchdown return of the season — but CCC wouldn’t be denied.
Set up by Artrevian McClellan’s 46-yard kick return and another UCS penalty, Sapp bulled in from the 1 to draw the Marauders back within two with seven minutes left.
Then it was the defense’s turn as first Jaffe, then Curtis Roberts and Shane Elam, and finally Keo Jenkins stopped Gray inches short of a first down at the CCC 16 with just 2:18 remaining and no timeouts left.
“We wanted to be physical, top them at the line of scrimmage and not let them get any yards no matter what happened,” Jaffe said.
A pair of completions from Newton (10-of-13 for 203 yards) to Julian Allen got the ball rolling, setting up a huge 33-yard hook-up with McClellan and, finally, the game-winning score.
“We’ve been in these situations before, it’s nothing new,” Johnson said. “Before, we lost, but this time we conquered. We just made plays.”