Largo in playoff game of 'unreal' proportions

By BOB PUTNAM, Times Staff Writer
Published December 7, 2007

LARGO - Standing outside the field house, Largo coach Rick Rodriguez will have the perfect vantage point of the ambience at Packer Stadium.

He envisions bleachers vibrating, the band blaring, cheerleaders shrieking, all for what could arguably be the biggest high school football game in Pinellas County in two decades.

Tonight, Largo hosts Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in the Class 5A state semifinals. The last time a county team hosted a game this big was 1987, as 5,300 packed Dunedin Memorial Stadium to see the host Falcons lose 24-0 to Pensacola Pine Forest in the state championship game.

Since that game, Dixie Hollins 1995, Northeast (1997) and Clearwater Central Catholic (2005) have all reached the state semifinals but lost - on the road.

"I was at that game here in Dunedin," Rodriguez said. "I think this one could be bigger. There's a lot of people paying attention."

With Armwood traveling to play Miami Booker T. Washington tonight and Tampa Catholic playing Madison County in the Class 2A state title game Saturday in Orlando, the Packers are the only game in town.

The team knows this just from the sheer volume of media requests. Four television stations have stopped by this week.

"It's been crazy," Packers senior safety Malcolm Durham said. "But we love it. This is a tough game, and we like the attention."

No matter the outcome of tonight's game, Largo will have had a highly successful season.

How successful depends upon what happens against talented St. Thomas Aquinas (12-1), which has a couple of intimidating offensive weapons and a history of breezing through the playoffs.

The stakes are high, and the challenge is immense.

A win for the Packers (13-0) will mean extending their 19-game home win streak, a trip to Orlando for next week's state championship game and the satisfaction of knowing this team did something special.

Largo has never appeared in a state title game, and the county has never won a state title.

"The magnitude of this is unreal," Rodriguez said. "But it's the perfect setting. We've gotten this far, and we get to play Aquinas, a team I always wanted to play before I retire."

The last time a county team played Aquinas was in '97 when the Vikings lost 14-0 to the Raiders in the state semifinals.

"They're always well-coached, and they keep coming at you with fresh people," said Northeast coach Jay Austin, an assistant with the Vikings then. "We played with them for a half, but they just wore us down in the end.

"The big thing is this time they have to come here."

Largo players past and present can sense the excitement. In their opinion, the time has come for Largo, which is starting to be known for its football.

Signs supporting the Packers are evident throughout the city. Words of encouragement are on marquees at restaurants and at the school. And former players are tuning in.

Dexter McCluster, who set the county record for rushing yards in a single season two years ago, will be on hand. Marcus Paschal, a former star at the school who is now with the Philadelphia Eagles, wrote a letter to the coaches and players congratulating them on their season.

"The attention has been more than we could have ever imagined," Rodriguez said. "It's helping to put this program on the map."

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@sptimes.com or(727) 445-4169.

Class 5A state football semifinal

Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (12-1) at Largo (13-0)

When: 7:30 tonight

Can't make the game? Catch 47 will broadcast the game. The Times will provide live scoring and game updates at highschool.tampabay.com.

Tickets: $7. No advance sales. The ticket boothat the school will openat 6 p.m.