CLEARWATER — As Clearwater Central Catholic gathered in the middle of its field Tuesday, head coach Chris Harvey spoke strongly about the historical game the team was going to play Thursday night: the Class 1M (Metro) state championship in Tallahassee.
“I’ve always said we’re going to be the first football team from Pinellas County to win a state title (since the FHSAA playoffs began in 1963),” said Harvey, in his seventh season at CCC. “I didn’t know when we would get the chance to make that history.
“I say, why not now?”
The Marauders’ opponent, Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna, no doubt will have plenty to say about Harvey’s question. The Lions, after all, are not only defending state champs, they have won four state titles over the last five seasons, finishing runner-up in the other.
Adding more spice to CCC’s challenge is the fact that this just might be the most talented Chaminade-Madonna squad ever. The Lions, 12-0 and ranked No. 5 in the country by maxpreps.com, have outscored opponents by a combined 610-126 and won their last three playoff games by a combined 153-16.
Harvey countered by promising that his Marauders (12-1, and ranked No. 3 in 1M and No. 27 overall in the state) are battle-tested and ready.
“This game is an awesome testament to our kids who have been working hard together for years, getting better and better,” Harvey said. “We have 13 seniors on this team who two years ago went 5-5 as sophomores. But those guys bought in and kept at it and they are the reason we’re here for this opportunity now.”
CCC senior right tackle Ceddrick Cann and senior running back Lenwood Sapp said they have heard all about Chaminade-Madonna but have watched the Lions on tape and are not intimidated.
“At this point, we don’t get intimidated,” Cann said. “We’ve played and beaten good teams (including defending state champ Jesuit, 23-21), and we’ve been repeatedly tested (see last week’s come-from-behind 34-29 victory over Jacksonville University Christian), and we’ve always had the same attitude. We just focus and take care of business. Just focus on the job. That’s what coach always tells us. It’s business.”
Added the soft-spoken Sapp, “We are always prepared, and when you know you’re prepared you don’t get nervous.”
Sapp, listed at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, shrugs and grins like he’s ready for anything, but quietly. His demeanor is so unassuming and his body language so understated, his statistics the past couple of seasons (1,245 yards rushing this year and 1,587 in 2021) seem almost unlikely.
“But when you put a football in his hands, he makes a lot of things happen,” Harvey said. “He’s the type of kid where at the end of a play he’s the one still finishing forward. Nothing is going to stop him from finishing forward.
“He’s sort of representative of our whole program. He rises up, and then nothing stops him from finishing forward.”
Now the hopes of Pinellas County rest on the shoulders of these CCC underdogs, the 10th team from Pinellas County to reach a state final and the first since 2014, when Indian Rocks Christian lost 54-16 to Lakeland Victory Christian.
CCC made it to the final once before, losing 34-7 to Jacksonville Trinity Christian in 2013. But this time, Harvey insists, the attitude is different.
Part of the Marauders’ optimism stems from having one of the most dynamic athletes to ever play in Pinellas County, sophomore quarterback Jershaun Newton, on its roster. Newton has thrown for 2,113 yards and 23 touchdowns with just two interceptions this season and rushed for 1,212 yards and 15 scores.
“We all feel confident with who we are, and with (Newton) we feel even more confident in what we do,” Harvey said. “Like I said, ‘Hey, why not now?’ Why not win a state title now?”
Who: Clearwater Central Catholic vs. Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna
What: Class 1M final
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Gene Cox Stadium, Tallahassee