SARASOTA — In the week leading up to The Out-of-Door Academy’s regional semifinal, senior running back AJ Strong continually reiterated how the Thunder couldn’t look past St. Petersburg Admiral Farragut.
Sure, ODA was the district champion and had won seven straight games, but as every football fan knows, anything is possible in the playoffs.
Such was the case last Friday night when the Thunder played arguably their worst half of football only to bounce back and score 34 unanswered points, 21 of which came in the fourth quarter on their way to a 41-17 victory over Admiral Farragut in the Class 1B-Region 3 semifinals at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota.
With the win, ODA earned the program’s first playoff victory and a spot in tomorrow night’s regional final against Fort Myers Evangelical Christian, which the Thunder beat 34-28 in the fourth week of the season.
“Our mindset right now is ‘Straight to State,’” Strong said before the game. “This is the team that started the football program here at ODA, and we want to leave on a good note. We’re starting a new tradition (here).”
After a scoreless first quarter, Admiral Farragut jumped on the scoreboard first to take a 6-0 lead, but the Thunder responded halfway through the second quarter when Strong found the end zone from 6 yards out.
But then uncharacteristic mistakes plagued ODA for the remainder of the half, resulting in 11 Blue Jacket points — all with less than two minutes to play in the first half. First a bad snap sailed over Strong’s head and into the back of the end zone, resulting in a safety.
Three plays later, the Blue Jackets scored on a 51-yard kickoff return after two free kicks landed out of bounds. Admiral Farragut added a field goal to take a 17-7 lead into the locker room.
Those mistakes could have cost the Thunder the game if it weren’t for Strong, who racked up 185 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the second half, and a staunch defensive effort.
“I didn’t tell my players anything special, but just to come out and play hard for a full 24 minutes,” coach Brett Timmons said. “We eliminated the mental mistakes.”
ODA scored on its opening possession of the third quarter when sophomore quarterback Brian Ragone connected with his older brother, Chris, for a 26-yard touchdown. The Thunder regained the lead on Brian Ragone’s 1-yard quarterback sneak on their final possession of the third quarter.
Strong added a pair of touchdowns on runs of 10 and 36 yards in the fourth quarter, and Chris Ragone capped off the Thunder’s near perfect second half with a 100-yard interception return. Strong finished with 231 yards on the ground and three touchdowns.
ODA will face Evangelical Christian in the regional finals at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 27, at Sarasota High School.
“We need to play sound fundamental football,” Timmons said. “We understand they have a prolific offense and a great defense; and we may have caught them off guard. We know we will have our work cut out for us this game.”
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