EAST COUNTY — The regular season may have ended last Friday, but as far as Braden River, Lakewood Ranch and The Out-of-Door Academy are concerned, their seasons have only just begun.
The postseason begins tomorrow night, and for the first time, all three East County schools will be making an appearance in the playoffs.
ODA and Braden River enter tomorrow night’s playoff contests looking to build off last season’s success, while Lakewood Ranch returns to the postseason for the first time since 2006. But what happened last year, last month or even last week doesn’t matter.
It all comes down to right now.
On paper, ODA appeared to have all the pieces in place to compete for a district title.
But it wasn’t until the Thunder fell to Cardinal Mooney 30-8 in the second week of the season that the players began to realize their full potential.
“We knew we had to come out and earn respect,” senior running back AJ Strong said. “After we lost to Cardinal Mooney, we got on a roll, and we started to click, which helped us to make it to where we are now.”
ODA coach Brett Timmons echoed Strong’s sentiments.
“I felt confident in what we had on paper,” Timmons said. “But I think after the Cardinal Mooney game, we grew a lot, and the lessons we learned then have served us well.”
From that point on, the Thunder sailed through their schedule, racking up seven straight wins on their way to a perfect 5-0 district season and capturing their first district title.
It’s been nearly a month since ODA secured a spot in the postseason, and now after weeks of waiting, the players finally can focus on what lies ahead. The team spent the final two weeks of the season resting some of its starting players — a decision Timmons hopes will aid to the Thunder’s advantage as they begin their playoff run.
As the Class 1B-District 6 champion, ODA will host District 5 runner-up Admiral Farragut at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 20, in the regional semifinals at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota. The Bluejackets enter tomorrow night’s contest with a 5-3 record. It will be the first meeting between the two teams.
ODA will look to contain quarterback Josh Burch, who Timmons said on film appears to be a Division 1-caliber athlete.
“(Admiral Farragut) is extremely well coached and they play hard,” Timmons said. “They’re going to be a formidable test for us, but hopefully, we’ll rise to the occasion and meet their talents.
“We’re trying to create a sense of urgency and an understanding of the fierceness of now,” he said. “Who knows if this opportunity will ever come again, so we need to capitalize and seize the moment. It’s now. It’s not tomorrow or yesterday but now.”
48 TO STATE
After advancing to the playoffs for the first time in school history last season, Braden River had its sights set on a repeat performance.
And in the midst of their toughest schedule to date, the players never lost sight of their goal. Using its “48 to State” mantra as inspiration, the Pirates jumped out to an early 4-1 record.
But the Pirates would face a few midseason tests, which could have spelled disaster. The Pirates suffered their worst loss of the season to district foe Southeast in their second district game and the following week lost starting quarterback Stephen Fischer to a fractured collarbone.
But rather than letting their setbacks get the best of the them, Braden River’s players relied on each other and their motto to carry them through.
The Pirates locked up their playoff berth at Englewood Lemon Bay two weeks ago. Tomorrow night, they travel to Winter Haven to face the Blue Devils in the Class 3A-Region 3 quarterfinals. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Winter Haven enters as the District 9 champion with a 9-1 record. The Pirates know little about their opponent, but Braden River coach Ed Volz’s main concern is making sure his players are prepared to go out and compete for 48 minutes.
“We know our formula,” Volz said. “We know what it takes to be successful, but we’re going to have to have a great week of practice to have a chance to beat them.”
After a dismal 1-9 finish last season, very few people knew what to expect from Lakewood Ranch this season.
Injuries to key players on both sides of the ball plagued the Mustangs last season; and with an entirely new offensive line, a new quarterback and a lack of depth in some areas this season, the odds of advancing to the postseason appeared long at best.
But that was before Lakewood landed in a new four-team district, meaning it had to only win two of its three district games to earn a playoff berth.
After soundly defeating Port Charlotte and then getting shut out by Charlotte, the Mustangs controlled their own destiny when they traveled to Palmetto two weeks ago.
A win and they were in.
Luckily for the Mustangs, they had time for one special play late in the fourth quarter that gave them their first playoff berth since 2006.
“I think everyone knew Charlotte was going to be tough, so we thought it was going to come down to us and Palmetto,” Trent said. “We kind of pride our kids on how difficult our schedule is and how a difficult schedule can help you in the long run.”
The Mustangs will travel to Cape Coral tomorrow night to face the District 12 champion Seahawks in a Class 4A-Region 3 quarterfinal. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Cape Coral enters tomorrow night’s matchup with a perfect 10-0 record having outscored its opponents 311-126. The Mustangs spent the past week practicing the same way they’ve done all season, focusing on consistency.
And although the Mustangs enter tomorrow night’s game as the underdog, Trent said he and the rest of the Lakewood coaching staff have been reminding their players that regular season records don’t mean anything in the playoffs.
“I try to tell the kids that the playoffs are a whole new season,” Trent said. “With a team like this, they need to get over that sense of being happy just by being in the playoffs. You’ve got to sell kids on the idea that you never know what’s going to happen.
“Anything can happen if you have the right attitude and mindset,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of teams who are 9-1 or 10-0 get upset by kids who just hung around because they took it for granted.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].