Braden River may be peaking at the right time.
In the last game of the regular season, Braden River coach Curt Bradley felt his team played Pirates football.
They gave the state’s No. 21-ranked team, visiting Clearwater Academy International, all it could handle in a 30-28 loss on Nov. 1.
Braden River finished 4-6 for its first losing regular season since 2012. Pirates players believed their season was over. Seniors hugged and wiped tears from their faces, and coaches made sure they did not leave the field without being thanked for their dedication to the program.
Then something improbable happened. The Pirates, who entered the game in the last playoff slot for their Class 6A region, made the playoffs anyway, thanks to the Florida High School Athletic Association’s power index algorithm that factors in win percentage, opponent win percentage and opponents’ opponent win percentage. Thanks to Braden River’s schedule, the Pirates made the postseason while two games under .500.
Braden River will travel to Palmetto High at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8. Palmetto is ranked eighth in the state, higher than Clearwater Academy International, and defeated the Pirates 27-3 on Sept. 27.
On paper, this game should not be close. Then again, the game against the Knights should not have been either.
Six times Braden River stopped the Knights’ offense on fourth down. Bradley said he could tell every player on his team was fully engaged and the home crowd seemed to sense it while shaking the stadium with their noise. The energy along the sideline reached a season high.
“We have been learning what it takes to win,” Bradley said. “We have played a gauntlet of a schedule. Our young guys have improved week in and week out to get to the point where they understand (what they need to do to win).”
Bradley said it was the first time a lot of his players have experienced an emotional hurt after a big effort since the team lost a wealth of senior talent after last season, Although it was a loss, it was also a proof-of-concept, showing everyone that these Pirates players can hang with anyone if they play their best.
The Pirates have junior quarterback Shawqi Itraish, who got better as the year progressed and ended the regular season with 2,356 passing yards, 17 touchdowns and three interceptions. He has thrown zero interceptions since a Sept. 20 game against Lakewood High. Junior wide receiver Josh Thomas, who burned the Clearwater Academy International secondary for a 90-yard touchdown catch and had another diving catch for 40 yards, averaged 19.5 yards per catch (703 receiving yards). The three members of their running back stable — junior Jaheim Hodo and sophomores Jay’Den Thibodeau and Lavontae Youmans — combined for 1,124 rushing yards.
That offensive balance, plus the defense that stopped the Knights six times on fourth down, could mean this Palmetto game will be a lot closer than the previous meeting, and if the Pirates manage to win, they will not fear anyone.