TAMPA - The term "moral victory" isn't a favorite among coaches, but it fits Middleton's game against Chamberlain last year. The second-year Tigers gained 100 more yards than the Chiefs, who were on the way to their fifth straight playoff berth. But Chamberlain won 17-6 and Middleton, at 1-3, appeared on its way to a disappointing season.
The Tigers turned it around, though, closing the season with four wins in their final six games. Only district rival, and 4A state champion, Armwood and 5A state semifinalist Durant beat the Tigers as Middleton finished its first varsity season at 5-5.
"It made folks realize we could play with anyone even though it was our first year of varsity football," coach Harry Hubbard said of the Chamberlain game. "There are times where you can win on the field and not on the scoreboard."
Last year, Alonso surprised the district by grabbing a playoff spot in its third year. Could the Tigers be primed to follow the same blueprint?
"Usually, about your third year, your guys have been around and they're able to grasp the system the way you'd like them to," Hubbard said. "They understand they can do it, but they also can't be a team that beats themselves."
Middleton will miss the do-it-all talent of Stoney Woodson. The school's first Division I prospect since it reopened, Woodson split time at quarterback and anchored the Tigers' secondary before signing with South Carolina. Cedric Harris transferred in and rotated with Woodson at quarterback, but as a senior, he'll have the position to himself.
Harris put up good numbers against Armwood, throwing for 229 yards in defeat.
THROUGH THE AIR: Harris' receiving corps is might be the best in the county. Seniors O.J. Murdock and Conshario Johnson are among the top 75 players in the state according to Floridakids.us and fellow senior Vergus Mack could join them in the college ranks in 2005, Hubbard says.
Murdock brings sprinter's speed in a 6-foot, 185-pound body; he has finished in the top four at the state track meet in the 100 and 200 meters the past two years. Johnson, at 6-2, fills the possession role. Combined with Mack, they make it tempting for the Tigers to put the ball up often, possibly 30-35 times a game.
"We'll do whatever it takes to win," Hubbard said. "You'd be crazy not use your more talented players."
ON THE GROUND: Germain Lewis rushed for 70 yards against Chamberlain and should be the featured back. But the 5-6, 170-pound senior will have to hold off the challenge of Will McCullough (6-4, 225). On the line, seniors Will Bergen, Chris Stanley and Caleb McCullough have been with the program for all three years, and junior Andrew Abrams is an experienced starter.
DEFENSE: A.J. Jones racked up tackles as a freshman, and the junior linebacker has fantastic size (6-3, 185). Vick Arboleda leads a secondary for which Hubbard holds high expectations, and seniors David Lee and Rashaad Fennell bookend the defensive line. Hubbard tabbed senior Marcus Wallace as one to watch, either on the line or at linebacker.