Looking at the Braden River High football team's 8-1 record, it appears that the 2021 season was business as usual for the perennial power Pirates.
In reality, the season was anything but usual.
Thanks to a rash of injuries, the Pirates had to play many players out of their strongest positions, some even playing their new positions for the first time. It caused adjustments from the coaching staff and a willingness for the players to make sacrifices for the betterment of the team.
Even so, the Pirates stayed afloat. In fact, Braden River might be all the better for its tribulations. The Pirates' 8-1 mark is the program's best regular-season record since going 8-1 in 2016.
That season, Braden River won its first-round playoff game against Gulf Coast High, 37-21, before losing to Venice High 64-42 in the next round. The Pirates won't have to deal with Venice this season as the Indians have been been bumped to Class 8A while Braden River is Class 6A.
As Pirates Head Coach Curt Bradley said after the team's 21-6 road win against Sarasota High (6-4) on Nov. 5, the team's postseason journey is still filled with challenging opponents, including Sumner High (8-2) — the only team to beat the Pirates this season, — and undefeated Tampa Jesuit (10-0).
First, the Pirates will play Countryside High (5-5) on the road at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12 for the right to advance to the regional semifinals.
Sophomore Trayvon Pinder and senior Nehemiah Jenkins have split the rushing load this season for the Pirates after an injury to projected senior starter Justice McDaniel in the first week against Lakewood Ranch High. Thanks to a strong offensive line and smart usage of the running back duo — Pinder is the thunder to Jenkins' lightning — Braden River has been able to control the clock offensively and force opponents to conform to the Pirates' preferred pace.
Lost in the running game's dominance is the senior under center. Bryan Kearse has been a wide receiver his entire Pirates career. Kearse, who is 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, caught 12 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown in the Pirates' first two games of 2021.
The injury to starting sophomore quarterback Nick Trier changed everything for Braden River and for Kearse, who was asked by Bradley and offensive coordinator Eric Sanders to step into the quarterback role. Kearse said the coaches knew he had some experience playing quarterback in middle school, part of the reason they turned to him. The other part, as Bradley said, was the coaches' trust in him not to make mistakes.
"Bryan has worked so stinking hard at that craft to be able to execute," Bradley said. "Not just from a quarterback standpoint but from a leadership standpoint. A lot of kids would be all, 'Man, I want the football. I want to catch balls.' He gave up a lot to play quarterback. He deserves a lot of credit."
With Kearse under center, the team has shifted its style to plays that suit Kearse's game, like option plays and roll out passes. Bradley credited Sanders with the seamless transition and play calling. As a result, the normally pass-heavy Pirates offense has been different to watch in 2021, but no less effective: Braden River is averaging 32.7 points per game. Despite his inexperience at quarterback, Kearse has been no small part of that success. In seven games under center, Kearse, who throws left-handed, has completed 35 of 62 passes for 551 yards and nine touchdowns. He has thrown just one interception. Kearse has contributed in the running game as well, rushing for 152 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries.
For Kearse's part, he's just happy to be helping the team at all. Kearse said he "understood the assignment" when asked to quarterback the team and feels like he's improved each week. Kearse thanked his coaches for working with him and doing things he is comfortable doing. He also thanked the running backs behind him for forcing defenses to play the run, opening up passing lanes — and for breaking big plays.
"Oh my God, it helps so much," Kearse said of his running back duo. "Knowing I can hand the ball to either of them and they can take it 40 or 50 yards is huge. On third and 15, I can hand it to one of them and we'll get the first down. I love those boys."
Pinder received a lot of attention early in the season for the way he broke out. He ran for 199 yards on 18 carries in week one against Lakewood Ranch and has continued his strong season since then. Bradley is just as proud of Jenkins, who primarily plays defensive back, for the way he's embraced the offensive side of the ball when the team needed him to step up — and while still playing defense.
"He (Jenkins) will tell you he thought early in his career he should have been playing more," Bradley said. "We asked him to wait and get better. It all clicked for him this year when Justice (McDaniel) went down. He grew up and matured and took the reins. He's been a warrior for us. He's only about 170 pounds but he runs the football hard. We are incredibly proud of him."
Jenkins had 16 carries for 106 yards in the Pirates' win over Sarasota.
Playing Pirates out of their normal positions remained a theme for the 2021 team throughout the season. Against the Sailors, one of Kearse's touchdown passes went to sophomore Cody Kawcak. In the team's first seven games, Kawcak was a defensive end. He moved to tight end because of injuries and found a way to contribute.
As much as these out-of-position players have contributed on offense, the Braden River defense has been as stout as ever. Against Sarasota, the Pirates held the Sailors to one touchdown, which came with five seconds left in the game. Braden River stonewalled Sarasota on a goal line stand in the third quarter, forcing a turnover on downs, and junior linebacker Tanner Wolfe and senior linebacker Andrew Nordland had sacks of Sailors senior quarterback Lance Trippel.