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DADE CITY -- Ben Alford knows one win is all that separates Pasco from a playoff berth that has eluded the Pirates the past three seasons. But he has a different respect for tonight's showdown with Ridgewood.
"For all of us seniors, it's our last game in this stadium," said Alford, who has thrown 20 touchdown passes in a breakout season. "That makes it a real big game for all of us. We want to go out the right way."
Pasco (5-4) fell out of district contention with back-to-back losses to Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills, but the Pirates can clinch an at-large berth with a win against the Rams (6-3), who secured their first postseason appearance last week.
"The playoffs is the playoffs, and you get in any way you can," coach Ricky Thomas said. "At that point, it's a whole new season."
But in order to get there, the Pirates must beat the county's most improved team. Pasco had trouble with the Rams in a 54-33 win in last year's season finale after falling behind 13-0. Last year, the game was meaningless: Ridgewood was closing out a 1-9 season amid six straight losses and Pasco had just been eliminated from playoff contention.
"It's totally different this year," Alford said. "We underestimated them at the start, and we knew we couldn't make the playoffs. I've never been to the playoffs, and I'd like to go just once, to see what the atmosphere is really like."
First, the Pirates must deal with Ridgewood's running tandem of Adamm Oliver and Sean Jester, who have combined for 24 touchdowns and 1,653 rushing yards. If that wasn't enough, Pasco must also contend with Jester as a receiver. Jester averages 31.4 yards on his 18 receptions, joining Pasco's Johnny Peyton, who averages 27.0 on his 17 catches, as two of the county's top big-play threats.
Defensively, Oliver leads the county with 102 tackles, while Pasco defensive end Kirk Moats has 17 sacks, needing two to match the county record. Moats returns from a one-game suspension after an ejection against Wesley Chapel; the same goes for linebacker Thomas Hasley, Pasco's leading tackler.
One area of concern for Pasco is its offensive line. Four players started at new positions last week and struggled against Zephyrhills. Thomas said the line must improve for the Pirates to be able to play their style of football tonight.
"(Zephyrhills) handled us on the line of scrimmage, and we weren't able to deal with them in the trenches," Thomas said. "That's where games are won and lost, and no matter how many skill people you have, the receivers and running backs, if you can't get anything done up front, you're not going anywhere."
A Pasco loss, which could mean a fourth consecutive season out of the playoffs, could put Thomas' job in jeopardy. Thomas is 19-20 after going 25-8 in his first three seasons, but Alford said the seventh-year coach has the support of his players.
"Coach Thomas has done a lot for me, for all of us," said Alford, who will wear a No. 22 jersey tonight instead of his usual No. 11, paying tribute to Thomas, who wore 22 at Pasco.