wilcox

Zaire Wilcox of Citrus runs for a chunk of yards during the team’s victory over Central on Sept. 27 in Inverness. The 9-1 Hurricanes are the No. 5 seed in the Class 5A-Region 2 playoffs and travel to Brooksville Friday night to face district-rival Nature Coast. Wilcox is the leading rusher for a team that has gained nearly 2,000 yards on the ground this season.

It has taken six years for Citrus to make its return to the state playoffs.

So even with the adversity of a late-season coaching change, the uncertain status of their starting quarterback and the daunting task of going on the road to try to avenge their only loss, McKinley Franklin believes the Hurricanes are focused and ready for tonight’s Region 5A-2 quarterfinal at Nature Coast, kicking off at 7:30 p.m.

“The kids are excited. It’s like they’ll be a part of school history,” said Franklin, serving as head coach after the resignation of Robert O’Brien two weeks ago. “Nature Coast is a great football team. And Citrus is a great football team. We have to go out and play 48 minutes of Citrus High football and see what the outcome is going to be.”

It was Oct. 18 when the Sharks (5-5) visited the Citrus Bowl and handed the then undefeated Hurricanes (9-1) a 39-14 loss. That win allowed Nature Coast to lock up the District 5A-8 championship.

Still, Citrus finished third in the region in RPI, making it an at-large postseason qualifier. However, not being a district champ means the Hurricanes are only the fifth seed, while the Sharks got the fourth seed.

Citrus has only played once since facing the Sharks, a 20-14 win at Crystal River two weeks ago. Yet the ’Canes have endured an eventful few weeks, most notably the departure of O’Brien before the conclusion of his first regular season at the helm.

Franklin pointed out, though, that his players have experience dealing with turnover at the top. The current senior class has gone through two in-season coaching changes and has now played for five different head coaches.

“They’ve lost coaches before,” Franklin said. “They are more focused this week than they have been in a couple of weeks.

“All the so-called distractions and adversity and the odds against us, the kids look at this as an opportunity. It’s nothing new to them. Regardless of the situation, we play football.”

The other major issue facing Citrus is the availability of third-year starting quarterback Connor Bishop. The senior was sidelined against Crystal River with his arm in a sling and immobilized.

Bishop has been throwing in practice and Franklin said he has looked good, but whether he plays tonight will be a game-time decision.

“We played without him at Crystal River. It was ugly, but we played without him,” Franklin said. “It’s next man up.”

Sophomore Jacob Palmeri started at quarterback against the Pirates, who leaned heavily on their run game in that victory. Citrus has totaled 1,981 yards and 31 touchdowns on the ground this season, primarily behind Zaire Wilcox (855 yard, 16 TDs) and T.J. Weems Jr. (720 yards, 9 TDs).

No matter who is under center tonight, the ’Canes need a significantly improved performance in all phases to knock off the Sharks.

“They exposed some of our weaknesses,” Franklin said. “We didn’t tackle well. We came out flat. It was not about how good they played. We just have to play a better game. We didn’t play our best football.

“We’re focused on our identity as Hurricanes and what the Hurricane way is all about. It’s that Citrus DNA; love, grit and fearlessness. That what we’ve lived on all year long and we had to come back to that.”

In the game three weeks ago, the ’Canes fell behind 20-7 in the first half and could never recover. The main story of the game was the Citrus defense being continually gashed by chunk plays. Nature Coast scored four touchdowns of 60 yards or more, three rushing and one passing.

“We were out of place quite a few times,” Franklin said. “That makes a big difference when you have a little confusion on defense. Everyone knows our defense takes pride in stopping the run, but when you’re out of place a team like Nature Coast will take advantage. We need to be in place, ready to hit and play football.”

Since their first varsity season in 2004, the Sharks have produced a steady stream of 1,000-yard running backs. But this year, quarterback Fabian Burnett paces the team with 544 yards on the ground, and has run in eight touchdowns. Collectively, Nature Coast has rushed for 1,929 yards and 25 scores.

“They’re big and once they get past the second level they’re pretty fast,” Franklin said. “They have good skill players over there that can run the ball. Fabian is an athlete. He can run it. The key to beating them is stopping him.”

As for having to go on the road for this one, Franklin accurately noted that his team is still undefeated away from its home field. And no matter what the obstacle, Franklin believes his players can overcome and move forward.

“We want to play football four weeks from now (in the state title game),” Franklin said. “These guys don’t want to stop here. I’m not saying we’re a shoe-in, but I’m saying our kids are hungry. I’m not saying Nature Coast’s kids are not, but our kids are hungry and I believe in them. Our school believes in them, our fans believe in them and we’ve got to keep believing in them and run on and see what the end is going to be.

“These kids are warriors, man. Regardless of the outcome (tonight), these kids are warriors and I’d put them against anybody and I know they’re going to fight.”

Prep Zone

Get updates and player profiles ahead of Friday's high school games, plus a recap Saturday with stories, photos, video Frequency: Seasonal Twice a week

Contact Chronicle sports reporter Chris Bernhardt at 352-563-5660, chris.bernhardt@chronicleonline.com or on twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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