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Zephyrhills escapes again on late score

By GREG AUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 3, 2001


ZEPHYRHILLS -- Another week. Another fourth-quarter rally. Another touchdown for Justin Whitworth and another wild win for Zephyrhills.

One week after catching a 59-yard go-ahead touchdown in the final minute against Pasco, Whitworth caught another pass. This time it was behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-20, with the Bulldogs trailing 14-10 and 2:45 to play.

As the defensive secondary moved in toward Whitworth, he squared and let loose a bomb down the right sideline, which Tony Smiley caught in stride for the winning touchdown in Zephyrhills' 17-14 victory over River Ridge.

"He's a ballplayer, a clutch man," Bulldogs coach Tom Fisher said of Whitworth. "When it's clutch time, you've got to have your clutch people on the field."

For Whitworth, last week's touchdown meant a spot in the playoffs and a long-awaited win over the Bulldogs' biggest rival. On Friday, it just meant escaping a game that Zephyrhills (8-2) had shown little interest in winning.

"That's the most terrible game we've ever played, I think," Whitworth said. "We didn't execute, the line didn't block at all. Not taking anything away from River Ridge, but we're better than that. We should be blowing those guys off the ball."

Instead, River Ridge (3-7) had rallied from a 10-0 halftime deficit on strong running from senior Adam Eberle, who finished with 149 yards. Eberle gave the Knights a 14-10 lead with his second touchdown, on the first play of the fourth quarter.

River Ridge forced a Bulldogs punt and ran 4:31 off the clock on its next drive, but a 46-yard run from Michael Moody, who went over 1,000 yards for the season with a 134-yard night, put Zephyrhills in position for Whitworth's touchdown pass.

The Knights followed with a 51-yard kickoff return by Jahmall Osbourne, but couldn't get in field-goal range. Their drive ended with Tony Laezza's third sack of quarterback Ryan Mistal.

"We're a good football team, I've said it all year long, but we just make mistakes," said River Ridge coach Mike DeGennaro, whose team had three first-half turnovers. "We gave that away. We make mistakes, and unfortunately, that's our season. We've made a lot of mistakes."

Zephyrhills will open the playoffs Friday at Bartow, which defeated Lake Region 27-21.

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