Wildcats seek a better first impression in opener

Published August 25, 2006

TAMPA - When the area's latest summer thunderstorm sent lightning flickering above Wharton's campus Wednesday, Wildcats coach David Miller called a practice audible that would have made Jon Gruden - and, perhaps, Emeril Lagasse - smile.

The second-year coach ordered his players to the school cafeteria, where they replaced their cleats with sneakers, moved the tables to the sides of the room and engaged in a full session of 11-on-11 work.

"We plan around what we have to do," Mitchell said matter-of-factly.

Tonight, as he addresses the Wildcats before their anticipated season opener against nearby rival Freedom, Mitchell likely won't have to be as creative. Fact is, he may not have to say anything at all.

History speaks profoundly of what this game means to Wharton.

"We think about that all the time," Wildcats linebacker Josh Jones says of Freedom's 24-14 upset win in the 2005 opener. "We can't let it happen again ...especially when you know a lot of players on the (opposing) team."

Last year's loss to the Patriots was the lone blemish on an otherwise perfect regular season for the Wildcats, who won the next 10 games before falling to Lake Gibson in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs.

While Mitchell heavily downplays the revenge factor, he acknowledges "the average 16- and 17-year-old athlete wants revenge, and that's how they look at it.

"Everybody mentions that they ruined a perfect season, but you can't look behind, you've got to press forward toward what you want to do. This is just another ballgame and you want to win. You want to get things on the right track."

The Wildcats figuratively jumped a track in last year's opener, and it cost them. A fumble on their first punt return was recovered by Shane Woolwine, who raced in for a 25-yard touchdown.

Wharton recovered to tie it at 14-all by halftime, but couldn't effectively neutralize Freedom's running game, which put together a 10-play second-half scoring drive for the go-ahead score.

"Probably, we had the better team last year, but early in the season we didn't really get rolling," Jones said. "We needed the loss last year to wake us up."