Avoiding another a midseason swoon is the key to reaching the postseason.
By JOEL POILEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2002
TAMPA -- A 3-0 start last year heightened expectations for a school that notched only four victories in its first five seasons.
A midseason swoon led to a 4-6 final mark for Wharton. But with 19 senior starters returning, close won't cut it this year. Playoff talk is in the air.
"We have to get over the hump this year, and that's Hillsborough, Chamberlain and King," said coach Richard Wood, who has been at Wharton for the good, bad and ugly the past four years. "We know this is probably the toughest district (5A-6) in the state. But we have the talent.
"There were a couple games last year where we let down late and gave up a big play. If we can stay focused for the whole game, we can compete with anyone."
Much of the playoff chatter is spurred by the frustration of several close losses last year.
"We busted our butts in the offseason and with working out over the summer," running back Larry Edwards said. "We put in all the work to be a champion, plain and simple. We sent a message last year that we can compete. This year we'll be ready to take the next step."
THROUGH THE AIR: Senior Ross Corcoran threw for 1,600 yards last year. Wood figures it could have been closer to 2,000 without all the drops.
Senior Michael Coonce returns after rolling up more than 500 receiving yards. Wood is also high on senior receiver Ahmad Nagel, who played well this spring after being ineligible last season.
Senior Ryan McGroarty returns, and junior Phillip Prior should help with his 6-foot-2 frame. Edwards will also be used on screens.
ON THE GROUND: Wood likens the 6-foot-2, 227-pound Edwards to a John Riggins 30-carry-a-game workhorse. That works for Edwards, who rushed for more than 700 yards last year with five touchdowns. (He scored three on receptions and two on interceptions.) "We wore down in some games last year, so I'd like to use Larry to grind some clock if possible," Wood said.
To that end, senior linemen Will Russell, 6-4, 230, and Wilbur Joseph, 6-feet, 240, will be depended upon to lead the way.
Hard-charging Joe Hall (6-2, 215), who played well at middle linebacker, moved to fullback to complement Edwards. Sophomore Clay Collins should also be in the mix.
DEFENSE: The Wildcats have experience, size and speed to man their 5-2 formation.
Nose tackle Kendric Morris can wreak havoc in the middle at 6-2, 280, and tackle Pete Knezevich also returns to anchor a solid line. That should allow linebackers David Montalvo, Nick Calvin and Edwards to make most of the tackles.
Seniors Chris Wilson, Chris Ellick and Jeffrey Johnson provide strong pass coverage and blitzing ability from the corners.
THE BIG GAME: Robinson, Sept. 6.
The Wildcats are eager to test themselves against district powers Chamberlain, Hillsborough and King. But Wood said it won't mean a thing if they don't get out of the gate with a win against Robinson.
"We need to build momentum before we get to the district," Wood said. "It all starts with Robinson. We can't lose sight of that."
AT A GLANCE
COACH: Richard Wood (fourth season, 9-29).
ASSISTANTS: David Mitchell, Earl Goodman, Mike Usry, Melvin McKay, Gary Collins, Brad Prior, Bryan Cox and Joe Morris.
COLORS: Navy and white.
STADIUM: 20150 Bruce B. Downs Blvd.
CLASS: 5A, District 6.
PLAYOFF HISTORY: None.