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It's a season of hope for county teams

With Hillsborough County no longer in the mix, Pasco County teams look forward to renewing old rivalries and having an equal chance for success.

By JAMAL THALJI

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 30, 2001


It does not defy description. Unfortunately.

"It was tough," said Zephyrhills running back Michael Moody.

"It was scary," said River Ridge defensive tackle Joey Mayo.

"It was hell," said Wesley Chapel nose guard Jason Boyd.

There are other words, many unprintable, grumbled night after night with the running clock ticking away, that described what Pasco County football has endured -- suffered, even -- these past two seasons.

* * *

In 1999, it was known as Option No. 3, one of many Florida High School Activities Association redistricting plans. The worst possible option for Pasco County, it threatened to split the county's eight teams into four far-flung, mismatched districts.

It was adopted, of course.

Against Hillsborough County teams alone, Hudson, Pasco, River Ridge, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills were a combined 2-30 (a dismal .063 winning percentage). They were outscored 1,173-302. Four times foes from down south broke the 50-point barrier, and seven times they shut out their victims.

"It was probably the most trying two years of my coaching career," Pasco coach Ricky Thomas said. "We lost a lot of football games. Those teams broke our confidence. We were a broken team the last couple of years.

"Something like that, it's hard to recover from."

But time heals all. So do new districts, new schedules and familiar foes.

* * *

Welcome back to the friendly confines of Pasco County. Friday, football life begins anew for the Buccaneers, Bulldogs, Cobras, Gators, Mustangs, Pirates, Rams, Royal Knights and Wildcats. Invigorated players and coaches are filled with hopes for success and glory.

The latest FHSAA plan has split the county into two far-more equitable districts with Hernando County. In the new Class 4A, District 6, Land O'Lakes, Mitchell, Ridgewood and River Ridge will battle Central and Springstead for two playoff spots. Gulf, Hudson, Pasco, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills will fight Hernando for two others in the new 3A-7.

This season, with Mitchell joining the varsity ranks, all nine county teams will play each other. A true SAC champion will be crowned. Old rivalries such as Pasco-River Ridge are back. New ones like River Ridge-Wesley Chapel will be born.

Now, every team, every coach and every player can dream anew of district titles and conference championships; of winning records and playoff games; of just knowing they have a chance.

"Every Friday night," River Ridge coach Mike DeGennaro said. "Every team's got a shot."

* * *

"I think there's a lot of excitement out there," Gulf coach Keith Newton said.

Zephyrhills coach Tom Fisher said he can feel the change.

"I think there's a new spirit everywhere," he said. "I really think now everybody in the county is going into every Friday night saying, 'We have a shot.' A legitimate shot, whereas before I think a lot of teams played a few games where they thought, 'Even if we go out and play a great game, we probably aren't going to win."'

It wasn't a good run at the box office, either. The last two seasons, athletic directors complained that attendance and gate receipts fell as unfamiliar foes whipped local teams and traditional neighborhood rivalries were halted. Travel costs rose as teams embarked on long bus rides south.

"There were too many neighborhood rivalries interrupted because you were playing somebody else from another county," Ridgewood coach Wayne Parzik said. "That hurts everybody. Because when you say you're going to Pasco, people can relate to that.

"But all the other teams, it's, 'Who are they?"'

* * *

Saturday's sports section brought no good news for Land O'Lakes coach John Benedetto back then.

"I think that was depressing to people," he said. "I didn't think the press helped either. I felt as though the press made a big deal that Pasco County schools had trouble beating Hillsborough County schools.

"It was all negative, which isn't good for anyone."

Many coaches agreed. Their competitive nature forbids them from conceding any game as unwinnable. Indeed, what coach would let his players lose a game before it is even played?

"It was a tough haul," said Scott Schmitz, who coached River Ridge in 1999 before taking the Mitchell job. "You've got to play with the cards that you're dealt. But I think sometimes people made too much about it and then the kids believe they can't win.

"You can't win by complaining about where you're at."

* * *

And yet ...

In 1998, playing in districts similar to the current ones, Pasco won conference and district titles and made it to the second round of the playoffs. After a three-way shootout in the other district, Land O'Lakes won the title and River Ridge finished runner-up and went to the playoffs.

But in 1999 and 2000, only one Pasco County team made it to the playoffs both years (Land O'Lakes) and only two teams finished seasons with winning records (River Ridge in 1999 and Land O'Lakes in 1999 and 2000).

The FHSAA assigns districts according to school population, but what did it matter on the field? County teams had talent, but not enough; the county had dedicated kids, but nowhere near enough.

"The last two years, you can't say it was an unreasonable schedule because we were the same size schools," Fisher said. "But they were different demographic areas. The concentration of athleticism is a lot more there.

"I knew we could put quality kids on the field at most positions who could match up with their quality kids. But then they'd have another set of quality kids sitting on the sidelines, whereas my quality kids had to play offense and defense.

"It's hard to do that for four quarters. Now, we're facing teams in the same situation."

* * *

But even in the face of overwhelming odds the past two seasons, there were enough bright spots to think that, now, the county will truly shine.

Land O'Lakes went 17-5 during that two-year stretch, winning conference and district titles in 1999 and making the playoffs both years.

In 1999, River Ridge went 2-2 in the district, finished 7-3 and almost earned a playoff berth. In 2000, the Royal Knights overcame an 0-4 start and won four consecutive games to finish .500.

In 2000, Wesley Chapel was the only county team to beat Hillsborough County foes during those two seasons, whipping Tampa Catholic 50-14 and edging Berkeley Prep 29-26 in overtime to finish 5-5.

Pasco nearly upset Robinson that season and beat archrivals Hernando and Zephyrhills on the road that year.

After a dismal 1999, Zephyrhills was reborn in 2000 and its best efforts were against Jefferson, Jesuit and Robinson. The Bulldogs finished 5-5 and wrested the SAC title away from the Gators in a stirring season finale.

After winning one game the previous four years, Ridgewood went 4-6 and was two plays away from a 6-4 record and the playoffs.

Which is why, tomorrow tonight, when The Star Spangled Banner is played for the first time at Bulldog Stadium, when the first cheer is heard at Des Little Stadium, when the first paper banner is torn asunder at Cobra Stadium and when the first cannon is fired at W.F. Edwards Stadium, there will be optimism in the air.

And well there should be.

"Everyone's got a shot, and when you know you have a legitimate shot, you work that much harder," Thomas said. "I can't speak for the rest of the county, but I'm sure everybody around the county believes they have a shot, and I believe we do too."

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