In the playoffs, every snap counts, and two teams — Riverview High (8-2) and Cardinal Mooney High (7-3) — will have the chance to make the most of theirs.
The Rams and Cougars advanced to the Florida High School Athletic Association postseason, which starts Friday, and both teams face challenges with opportunities to learn from past losses.
When the Rams travel to Steinbrenner High in Tampa to take on the Warriors (7-3), they'll do so coming off a 21-14 road win over Charlotte High on Nov. 4. Ask Rams Coach Josh Smithers if he was happy with how his team ended the regular season and he'll hesitate.
"I'm happy we were able to get a win," Smithers said. "We didn't play real well. We had a ton of penalties and I think three turnovers. We did some things, made some mistakes that we hadn't made in a while. But, that being said, you always have games where you don't play well. I'm proud of our guys for finding a way to win. It would have been easy for us to lay down and get frustrated and let Charlotte beat us, but our kids didn't do that. They kept fighting."
Smithers said the mistakes were partly a result of a short week — playing on a Thursday — and partly a lingering effect of the team's 42-7 road loss to Venice High the previous week. The team had a bit of a mental lapse, Smithers said, but he believes the Rams will not have the same issues going forward.
If history is any indication, cleaning up the little details will be a big key against the Warriors. In 2019, Riverview lost to Steinbrenner 27-25 in a home playoff game. The Rams had 22 penalties in that game, resulting in 183 yards. In a game decided by less than a field goal, it's not a stretch to call that penalty yardage the difference in the outcome. Smithers is well aware of the impact those penalties had on the game.
"It's ironic that we're talking about this stuff now because of what happened (in 2019)," Smithers said. "The Charlotte game was actually a good opportunity for us to preach and focus on those things this week. We have to make sure we don't have another 22-penalty game and hand the game to them."
If the Rams are able to avoid those mental mistakes, they'll likely be led offensively by senior running back Jay'den Birch, whom Smithers said has impressed him over the course of the season. Birch played well last year behind then-senior Michael Hayes, Smithers said, but also dealt with a few injuries that limited his on-field oppotunities. In 2021, Birch has stayed healthy and become a workhorse of his own. Entering the postseason, Birch has 1,008 yards on 168 carries (6.0 yards a carry) and 11 touchdowns.
"He's doing it all for us," Smithers said. "He's getting the tough yards. He's breaking long runs. He's done a great job in protection. He's caught some balls out of the backfield. It's a nice luxury to have. It's not a surprise because we knew he could do it, but it's nice to see him do as well as he has."
Smithers added that he's counting on his defense to create more turnovers this postseason than they have in the regular season. They've had some in key situations, like last week, when Triston Parsons had an interception in the fourth quarter to help seal the win, but not enough overall. If the Rams can add that capability to an already consistent defense in terms of points allowed, it could be a major force. Smithers said he will try to instill that attitude in practice this week, having players do a set of push-ups if they drop an interception.
"It's just a mentality," Smithers said. "They need to always be punching at the ball and doing everything they can do to get it back."
At Cardinal Mooney, second-year head coach Jared Clark is tight-lipped about what the team has in store for Bishop Verot High (5-4) when the two teams meet for the second time in three weeks in Fort Myers on Friday night, not wanting to say anything that will tip off the Vikings to their plan of attack. But Clark did say that the fundamentals will be a difference-maker for the Cougars.
"We have to block well, tackle well and execute the little things well," Clark said. "I'm happy with how hard we worked throughout the year to get here. We've gotten better."
Clark said the previous game against the Vikings was well played by both teams; Bishop Verot simply made a few more plays in the end. The Cougars likely will need to open more holes in the running game than they did the first time. Cardinal Mooney rushed 32 times for 110 yards, for an average of 3.4 yards a carry. That's well below the Cougars' season average of 5.6 yards a carry.
What the Cougars could use is a repeat performance from freshman wide receiver Ryan Matulevich, who had eight catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. Matulevich, who is 6-foot and 192 pounds, received his first NCAA FBS offer from Arkansas State on Oct. 19. He'll likely be matched up against Bishop Verot senior cornerback Chris Graves, who is a Rivals four-star recruit and is committed to Miami.
Defensively, the Cougars did a great job of limiting Graves — who also plays wide receiver — to two catches for nine yards, but they will need to be wary of giving up big plays. Three different Vikings had catches of 24 yards or more, and Bishop Verot freshman running Carter Smith broke a 39-yard run.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.