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Football: Crusaders seniors keep it together
By JOEY KNIGHT, Times Staff Writer
Published December 6, 2007
TAMPA - Three autumns ago, Bob Henriquez, then a Jefferson High assistant, sat in the home bleachers at Jesuit's Corral Stadium, bedecked in Dragons coaching attire and curiosity.
The Tigers' junior varsity was hosting rival Tampa Catholic, the school from which Henriquez graduated in 1982 and where he served as varsity coach from '91-99. At the time, he insists, Henriquez had not entertained the slightest notion of returning to TC.
"I went (to that game) kind of on a lark, actually," he said.
He left with an indelible impression of the young Crusaders, a headstrong bunch that won all eight of its games despite routinely engaging in full-contact practices the day before contests.
"I could see a lot of the same kind of spirit and enthusiasm and what have you that I was accustomed to," Henriquez recalled this week.
Coincidentally or not, beleaguered fourth-year Crusaders coach Jim Guderian was dismissed roughly two weeks later. On Dec. 30, 2004, Henriquez was hired, vowing to restore respect to a program that had won eight total games in the five seasons since his first stint ended.
Now the Crusaders (11-2) are a victory from the program's first state title. Henriquez readily acknowledges the figurative mortar in his audacious reclamation project has been the energy and swagger he witnessed three years ago.
"Really, that group has been the backbone of our resurgence," Henriquez said.
The group consists of 15 seniors, most of whom starred for that JV team. Since its varsity premiere in 2005, TC has gone 26-10.
"Let me tell you, they weren't an easy bunch to coach; they had a lot of personality," said Jorge Tamargo, coach of that 2004 JV team. "But we were able to overcome that. Those kids played every game like it was their last."
Among the group's standouts: receiver Eric Gerken (42 catches, 601 yards, 10 TDs), tailback Drew Zink (951 rush yards), linebackers P.J. Briody (93 solo tackles) and Will Greaves (67 solos) and defensive end Marco Mendoza (64 total tackles).
"Our coaching staff, we kept preaching to them that they were the future," Tamargo said.
"They had to work hard, come to summer workouts, be committed, and they were. We were fortunate, these guys had an idea of the game when they came here. ... We just had to polish it up, and Bob polished it up."
To his credit, Guderian recognized the potential. Several, including Tamargo, independently corroborate the story of Guderian inviting a handful of those '04 freshmen to join the varsity. Accounts differ as to when the players were asked to move up.
But all agree the players respectfully declined, essentially choosing to flourish as a JV unit instead of flounder as varsity bit players.
"We knew that our chances weren't too good of winning if we went up there," Briody said.
"(Guderian) had us in his office and he went down the line and asked if we wanted to move up and we just said no," Zink added. "Every single one of us: me, P.J. Briody, Marco Mendoza, Eric Gerken, all of us - no."
Interspersed with the more prominent seniors are some overachievers who have especially endeared themselves to Henriquez.
Among them are two-way lineman Trevor Funk, who the coach said has emerged since academic problems earlier in his career, and right guard A.J. Noto, whose work ethic has transformed him from seldom-used backup to starter.
"It's really been all about the kids and their willingness," Henriquez said.
"(Henriquez) told us, 'Guys, we're going to try to build up this program. I can't guarantee you anything this first year, but if you guys just buy into my program, we'll get it done,' " Briody recalled. "So far, so good."
The collective spirit and swagger of this group will brandish itself one final time Saturday in the Citrus Bowl against Madison County. The Cowboys (12-1), who average nearly 40 points and boast 1,800- and 1,400-yard rushers, appear physically and statistically superior.
But the Crusaders will bring something far less quantifiable: those qualities Henriquez observed on an otherwise forgotten night three years ago.
"It's just time to get something done," Zink said. "I mean, we're in the state championship right now. You can't come up empty."