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Wildcats: Rams are no flukes

Ridgewood hung with Wesley Chapel until the very end.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002

NEW PORT RICHEY -- Wesley Chapel won Friday night. Ridgewood lost. Too bad for the six teams who still have to play the Rams this season.

The Wildcats were already a foe to be reckoned with before Friday night's 20-3 win over the Rams. But Ridgewood proved something, too: They can play as hard as the reigning county champs.

"We were battered and take a look, so were they," Ridgewood coach Troy Cornwell said. "Bottom line: That was two good football teams going at each other."

It's no surprise Wesley Chapel, the defending Sunshine Athletic Conference champion, improved to 4-0 and 3-0 in the SAC and extended its regular-season win streak to 17. But the surprise is that the Wildcats needed their defense to bail out an error-prone and punchless offense.

Yes, Wesley Chapel ground out 297 yards, averaging 6.8 yards a carry. But thanks to 11 penalties and five fumbles -- four lost on four consecutive drives in the third quarter -- the unit was ineffective after a 13-3 first-half lead.

Gabriel Montelongo missed a 24-yard field goal wide left in the third, and quarterback Cory Filley threw an interception. To keep the last drive going on fourth down, Wesley Chapel had to resort to drawing Ridgewood offside.

The loss of guard Ryan Bethell to possibly torn knee ligaments was also a problem. As was Tyrone Tomlin, who played both ways on his surgically-repaired knee and looked spent in the second quarter and fumbled twice in the third.

Even with defensive tackle Derrick Gentles on the sideline for the second half with a hip pointer, the defense held the Rams to 98 yards in the first half and 154 total.

When the offense turned the ball over to Ridgewood just 16 yards from the end zone, Wesley Chapel stood tall. Defensive end Chase Polston twice rocked Ridgewood quarterback Pete Bennett on back-to-back plays, forcing Kale Durocher to attempt a 41-yard field goal that was blocked in the third quarter. The defense recovered three fumbles, had an interception and bottled up the line of scrimmage.

The Rams proved their 3-0 start, the best in a decade, was no fluke.

Forget strength of schedule. Ridgewood's three wins may have come against foes who were a combined 0-8, but that didn't matter Friday. The Rams did exactly what Cornwell had said they would: play with confidence and match the county's best team hit for hit -- repeatedly.

"They did a good job," Wildcats coach John Castelamare said. "Those kids played hard. We had to find a way to get outside, because they were taking away the traps and things we do in the Wing-T."

The defense clamped down on the Wildcats all night, forcing three field goals attempts -- one was wide right -- until the very end, when the exhausted Rams finally allowed Tomlin into the end zone on a 2-yard sweep with 22.5 seconds left.

Defensive end Adamm Oliver, who rushed for 58 hard-earned yards, seemed to be reading the opposing quarterback's mind, calling out Wesley Chapel's plays even as his own sideline called out something different. Matt York recovered two fumbles, and Ridgewood recovered four and had an interception.

"We'll play you for four quarters," Cornwell said.

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