Pirates' sixth-straight loss to Indians ends the season
A terrific comeback fell just short, leaving Braden River High's football players in a familiar position — holding their heads in their hands after an agonizing loss to Venice High.
It was the Pirates' sixth-straight loss to the Indians, this time a 28-21 decision at Venice Nov. 16 in the regional semifinals. Braden River finished 9-3 while Venice moves to the regional title game against visiting Bloomingdale High (11-1) at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 23.
“It certainly does not feel good,” Bradley said. “I am proud of these kids. They fought their tails off and put themselves in a position to come back. We just make some mistakes early and gave up some untimely big plays defensively. You cannot have busted assignments against a team of this caliber.”
Braden River now bids farewell to some talented seniors, including quarterback Bryan Gagg, headed to play at East Carolina, and wide receiver/running back Knowledge McDaniel, who has offers from Georgia, Ohio State and Mississippi, among other top programs. McDaniel was ineligible to play against Venice because of a ruling from the Florida High School Athletic Association earlier this season involving improper benefits.
Also gone will be defensive back Mark Davis, who has offers from Georgia State and Western Michigan, among others, and defensive lineman Jackson Dietz and linebacker Taylor Pawelkoski, the team leaders in tackles with 76 and 72, respectively.
The only returning varsity quarterback, 6-foot-2 sophomore Shawqi Itraish, played well in limited snaps, completing 12 of 17 passes for 145 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions this season. If Itraish wins the starting job next season, he will have plenty of weapons around him. The Pirates will return junior running back Brian Battie, who rushed for a Class 7A-leading 2,113 yards on the year (9.2 yards per carry). Junior tight end Travis Tobey finished with 416 receiving yards and junior wide receiver Robby Goecker had 436 yards.
Of course, Venice will lose players next season as well, like quarterback Hayden Wolff, an Old Dominion commit, and running back Brandon Gregory, leaving an opening if the Pirates can take advantage of it.
“Obviously, we were not able to do what the plan was,” Gagg said of the season-ending loss. “We wanted to keep driving in the playoffs, but this is a brotherhood. I love every kid on our team. I am going to miss playing with them. I would not want to play my last (high school) game with anyone else.
“It is special, the relationships I have built here with the players. I made friends here that I am going to have for life.”
Gagg finished his career with a 337-yard, three-touchdown performance against Venice. Senior wide receiver Clyde Townsend had 171 of those yards and one of the touchdowns.
“This was a great group of seniors,” Bradley said. “They gave a lot to the program. Unfortunately we came up short, and that is on me as much as anyone. I wish we could give them another game, and that is my fault. I feel bad that I let those kids down.”
The Indians scored on the game's first drive with a 6-yard touchdown run by Nico DallaCosta for a 7-0 lead. Venice senior safety Noah Carr then picked off Gagg and returned it for a touchdown as the Pirates fell behind 14-0 early.
After the Pirates' next drive stalled, Venice drove another touchdown with a five-yard run by Mike Trapani finishing the drive to give Venice a 21-0 lead.
The Pirates responded, though. Gagg connected with senior wideout Clyde Townsend for a five-yard score to make it 21-7, and the Pirates' defense put together a goal-line stand to keep it a two touchdown deficit at halftime.
Another goal-line stand in the third quarter kept Braden River in the game before Gagg's 32-yard touchdown pass to tight end Travis Tobey cut the lead to 21-14.
However, Venice came right back with quarterback Hayden Wolff's touchdown pass to Carr to make it 28-14 with a quarter to play.
Battie drove into the end zone from the 1 midway through the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 28-21, but Braden River couldn't manage another scoring drive.