With only four weeks left in the regular season, and just three games for several teams yet to take a bye, no doubt tonight’s games mark the beginning of the stretch run.
The FHSAA released its first RPI rankings this week, and undefeated teams Citrus and Dunnellon are in solid position to earn a postseason berth.
Hernando at Citrus, 7:30 p.m.
It’s homecoming for Citrus, and the team has given its school plenty to celebrate. The Hurricanes are 7-0 and are eighth in the RPI rankings for Class 5A, second in their region behind Jones out of Orlando.
“I was surprised with where we’re at. I thought we’d be in the teens. To be at eighth right now is exciting,” Citrus head coach Robert O’Brien said. “But we still have a lot to do in front of us. We’re beat up right now. These next three games are going to be a challenge. I’m not concerned with RPI. Things can change quickly.”
The use of an RPI to determine playoff positioning is a familiar concept in other states, but the rating system was just instituted this year in Florida. The four district champions in each region and the next four highest-ranked teams based on the RPI advance to the postseason.
Of course, the ’Canes could leave nothing to chance by running the table and taking the District 5A-8 crown. They wrap up the regular season against three playoff teams from a year ago who have struggled at points this year: Hernando (3-4), Nature Coast (3-4) and Crystal River (2-5).
“We’re trying to emphasize to kids to be extra focused, extra diligent in preparation,” O’Brien said. “This week is homecoming for us, so that’s difficult.”
The Leopards began the season 1-4. But since a 7-0 loss at Crystal River on Sept. 13, on the same day JV player Trevor Bowen was struck and killed by a van, Hernando rallied to win two straight before last week’s 19-16 double overtime loss to Springstead.
“They are physical. They want to come out and hit you in the mouth,” O’Brien said. “They have a bunch of athletes. It’s another good O-line and they’re physical, hard-nosed kids.
“I don’t see their record as indicative of who they are. They had a tough start to the season but they’ve gained their footing and they’re playing good ball.”
Though O’Brien declines go into specifics, Citrus has dealt with some injuries the past few weeks and could have a handful of players missing.
“Football is a grind,” O’Brien said. “Guys who are projected to be starters, things happen. Guys who are twos and threes (on the depth chart) have to step up and be ballplayers.”
Madison County at Dunnellon, 7:30 p.m.
The other local unbeaten, Dunnellon, sits ninth in the 5A RPI rankings and third in the region behind Jones and Citrus.
“It’s early,” Dunnellon head coach Price Harris said. “We’ve got to continue to do what we do and control what we can control. I’m not worried about that, it’ll work out in the end. We’ve got to keep winning football games.”
Tonight’s contest isn’t against an opponent from the district or even the same classification, though it could go a long way toward propelling the Tigers (6-0) higher up on the RPI.
Madison County (5-2) is the two-time defending state champion in 1A, and has beaten Dunnellon each of the past two seasons, 24-21 in 2017 and 42-0 last year. Currently, MaxPreps.com and the Associated Press ranks the Cowboys first in 1A, FloridaHSFootball.com has them second.
Dunnellon is fifth in 5A according to MaxPreps, and seven in both the AP and FloridaHSFootball.com polls.
“We like to win them all. The guys have been pretty focused all year. But this week they understand the task at hand,” Harris said. “I think they might not have the studs they had last year. But they still have very, very good football players and I think they’ve got more now.”
Harris noted that the Cowboys like to run the ball and the numbers certainly bare that out. As a team they’ve rushed for 2,182 yards and 27 touchdowns. Junior Robert Hiers has 996 yards and 10 scores, while senior Vinsonta Allen has 671 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is control the line of scrimmage. That’s easier said than done,” Harris said. “We’ve got to limit their yards per carry and when we get a chance on offense we’ve got to make it count.”
Crystal River at Central, 7:30 p.m.
On the plus side, last week Crystal River showed signs of life offensively, getting 18 points out of a unit that had accounted for three touchdowns all season. But the final outcome was still a 28-18 loss to a tough squad from The Villages.
“We’re not looking for moral victories,” Crystal River head coach Cliff Lohrey said. “I thought we played a really high quality opponent. We did things to build on. We’ve got to continue to eliminate penalties and turnovers.”
The Pirates (2-5, 1-1 5A-8) finish out the regular season with three straight district games over the next three weeks, so the scenario is pretty simple: they must win out.
“The playoffs for Crystal River start on Oct. 11. Not doubt about that,” Lohrey said. “We’ve got to take care of what we can control, that’s the opponent in front of us.”
This week the challenge is staying in front of Contae Cason. The junior has already compiled some outstanding numbers, 1,414 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground, and 23 touchdowns overall. But the Bears (3-3, 0-2 5A-8) are riding a three-game losing skid.
“I think it’s pretty clear he’s certainly the guy their offense runs through,” Lohrey said. “They’ve got some other guys who potentially can hurt you. But there’s little doubt he’s the guy who they want to get the ball to and the guy who makes them tick. The challenge of this Central team is being able to stop him.
“I thought for most of the season we’ve tackled pretty well. Against The Villages, I wouldn’t say we tackled poorly but we missed too many tackles. We’ve got to get every guy running to the football.”
Lecanto at Springstead, 7:30 p.m.
Much like Crystal River, Lecanto (2-5, 0-1 6A-5) needs to win out to have any realistic chance of moving on to the postseason.
“The guys are as good as they can be when you’re 2-5 and were expecting better things out of the season,” Lecanto head coach Greg Harper said. “The kids are in good spirits. They’re looking forward to another opportunity to win a football game.”
Springstead (6-0, 1-0 6A-5) won’t make that an easy task. The Eagles have allowed a combined 38 points all season, and the Panthers will again be without quarterback Ryan Rogers as he recovers from a concussion.
“They do what they do. They’re a consistent football team year in and year out,” Harper said. “It’s the same style of offense. It’ll be a tough game for us to win. I feel like we have a game plan in place and the kids are anxious for a chance to win another game.
“If we lose another one we know the season ends in a couple of weeks and that’s not what we want. We’ll fight until we can’t fight anymore.
“We want to get a win under our belts. I told the kids we can still get a 5-5 season, which would tie for the third-best in school history. There’s still stuff for us to fight for and continue to work toward.”
Ocala Christian at Seven Rivers Christian, 7:30 p.m.
Last Friday night, Seven Rivers ended its 14-game losing streak dating back to Week 2 of last season, beating St. Johns Country Day, 33-14.
“This week we talked about raising the bar,” Seven Rivers head coach Monty Vann said. “The guys did what we expected of them last week. Now they’ve seen they can do it. We can execute plays, be disciplined on defense. Now let’s raise the bar and get better.”
This week’s opponent Ocala Christian (1-5) lost to St. Johns Country Day on Aug. 23, 20-19, but the Crusaders also recorded their first win last week against Merritt Island Christian, 32-8.
“They’ve got a talented running back (Keiron Greene), he’s quick kid,” Vann said “They’ve got a receiver (Jett Bloom), he’s a tall dude, he’s 6-6. They’ve got a quarterback who’s able to put the ball up high to where only (Bloom) can get it.”
This is a Sunshine State Athletic Conference FCS North Division matchup. However, both teams are 0-2 in the division and out of the running to make the playoffs.
“We didn’t take care of business,” Vann said. “Now our goal is finishing on a strong note, going 5-5.
“We’ve got a lot of momentum. But the thing is, after a win, especially with a team that hasn’t won in a while, guys become satisfied. We want our guys to not be satisfied. I think this week so far they’ve practiced like they’re hungry.”