LECANTO — Sometimes, it pays to keep it simple.
The Lecanto offensive coaches didn’t call too many different plays on Friday night. They didn’t have to. Out of their first 49 offensive snaps, the Panthers ran the ball on 47 of them, and most were of the pound-it-up-the-middle variety.
Luke Malmberg made sure they didn’t need to do anything else. The senior padded his county-best rushing statistics with 246 yards and three touchdowns, as Lecanto repeated as county champion with a 30-6 victory over visiting Crystal River.
“It feels really good to go back-to-back two years in a row,” Malmberg said. “We’ve been working on a new play and it just worked well. Our O-line blocked their butts off and we did really well.”
What exactly was the new play? Even that answer was simple.
“Power,” Malmberg said.
“He’s a good, solid running back,” said Crystal River head coach Cliff Lohrey, pausing for a moment before concluding there was no need for a more nuanced explanation. “He broke tackles.”
It seemed like the Pirates (2-5) had the early momentum, forcing a three-and-out that was followed by a short punt on the game’s opening drive. But Crystal River couldn’t fully take advantage of the short field and settled for a 30-yard field goal by Zach Van Fleet.
Za’mauri Johnson recovered a fumble on the ensuing possession and Crystal River carried that 3-0 advantage into the second quarter. Yet Lecanto (3-3) forced a punt and things quickly began to turn.
The Panthers ran 21 offensive plays in the first half; 20 of them were carries by Malmberg. In fact, he accounted for the team’s first 24 rushes.
He had runs of 18, 9 and 11 yards before a 3-yard touchdown up the middle to put Lecanto on the board at 10:17 in the second quarter. He added the 2-point run to make it 8-3.
On the next drive he rushed seven times covering 70 yards, the last six bulling his way to the end zone to increase the lead to 15-3 with 5:32 to go in the half. He had 165 yards by the intermission.
Darius Gainer was incorporated into the run game throughout the second half. However, it was still Malmberg on an inside run from three yards out and tacking on a second 2-point conversion to make it 23-6 as 2:49 remained in the third quarter.
On the final drive the Panthers did throw a couple of passes. Shwantez Simmons found Gainer for a 13-yard touchdown with 5.8 seconds to play.
“We just kept it simple,” Lecanto head coach Wyndell “Chop” Alexander said. “We had to get back to the basics, blocking and tackling. I felt like this was the best game that we had as far as that goes. We just kept it simple.
“… (Malmberg) just executed. When you keep it simple and the guys don’t have to think as much, I think they have the ability to execute. He followed his blocks. He didn’t try to do anything too fancy. He’s a downhill runner. He knows what kind of style runner he is. It’s just awesome to have a workhorse like that.”
Alexander also praised a defense that limited the Pirates to 145 yards of total offense and held star running back Joel Velazquez to 55 yards on 20 carries. Van Fleet added a second field goal, from 25 yards, in the closing minute of the second quarter.
“We had to swarm the ball. We kept preaching tackling, tackling was key this week, and swarming the football,” Alexander said. “It was a different type of intensity. We didn’t do our normal walk-through yesterday. We actually had a practice yesterday. I just think the kids, they wanted it. I think that was the difference between this game and the other games.”
Lecanto had previously defeated Citrus last month, allowing the Panthers to clinch the county title in this one. Crystal River turns around to face the Hurricanes next Friday.
“We got off to a good start early, but all the credit to Lecanto. They earned the victory. We’ve just got to go back to work on Monday,” Lohrey said. “… This is going to hurt now. Any time you lose to your neighbor, that’s tough. It’s like I told the guys in the huddle, there’s no words that I’m going to be able to say to that group tonight to take away the sting, the hurt, the anger, the frustration. There’s nothing you can say to take that out of a high school football player’s heart and mind, what they’re feeling right now.
“I told them we can’t just be a family, we can’t just be Pirates when things are going well. You’ve got to stay together through thick and thin. Tonight’s thin. We’ve got to come back to work on Monday.”