With the high school football season approaching the regular season's end point Friday, two area football teams' postseason fortunes seismically shifted Tuesday night.
The Riverview High Rams, back at the Ram Bowl for the first time since Hurricane Ian more than a month ago, hosted Cardinal Mooney High for a crucial midweek contest. It was the first time the two programs had played each other. Being a Florida High School Athletic Association Class 4S program, and being at home, conventional wisdom would have labeled the Rams the favorite over the Class 1S Cougars.
But conventional wisdom doesn't decide the outcome of football games.
The Cougars (3-6) used a punishing effort from its defense — and just enough scrappiness from its offense — to walk away with a 14-7 win over the Rams (3-6). Cardinal Mooney intercepted Rams junior quarterback Jeremiah Dawson three times in the second half, one of which was returned for a touchdown by Cougars junior linebacker George Leibold. The Cougars also caused Rams sophomore running back DJ Johnson to fumble at the Rams' 27 yard line. The Cougars offense would turn that mistake into the team's other touchdown, a four-yard reverse by senior receiver Ryon White.
The win gives Cardinal Mooney a spark of hope when it comes to the playoff picture. As of Nov. 1, the latest FHSAA power rankings were released Oct. 26. In those rankings, the Cougars were ranked fifth in Class 1S Region 3; the top four teams advance to the postseason. But since those rankings were released, Mooney has beaten St. Petersburg Catholic (2-7) 35-0 on the road in addition to the win over Riverview, while Zephyrhills Christian Academy (4-5), the No. 4 team, has lost 34-22 to Northside Christian (8-0).
The FHSAA power ranking algorithm — a version of MaxPreps' proprietary rankings formula — is not public, making any potential calculations based on this information difficult. However, the algorithm is known to incorporate strength of schedule, which already favors the Cougars (6.63) over Zephyrhills (-1.29). The win over a large-school team such as Riverview should only enhance that difference, meaning Mooney might not have to have a better record than Zephyrhills to jump the Warriors in the standings.
The Cougars' season is also not over. Mooney will host Bayshore High (0-8) at 7 p.m. Friday in its regular season finale. A win would get the Cougars to 4-6 and potentially playoff bound, a feat that seemed a distant dream when the team fell to 1-6 on Oct. 21.
"The credit goes to these guys (the players)," Cardinal Mooney coach JaredClark said. "Everybody told them that there was nothing left to play for. Everybody told them that they were out of the playoffs. They said we have nothing left. These guys didn't listen. They tuned everybody out. They got closer to each other, bonded with each other. And they came out here and they played a heck of a football game tonight."
On the other side of the Ram Bowl field, emotions were not as joyous. The Rams were attempting to complete a similar playoff push; the game against Mooney was Riverview's fourth in 12 days, an all-out effort to both make up games in the wake of Hurricane Ian as well as jockey for postseason positioning after starting the season 1-4. Rams coach Josh Smithers said he asked his players whether they wanted to attempt the jam-packed schedule, and they did.
The Rams ended up 2-2 in those final four games, which included an 11th-straight win over rival Sarasota High (4-4), the No. 5 team in Class 4S Region 4 in the most recent rankings, on Friday. In the 4S class, eight teams per region make the postseason, so the win significantly boosted the Rams' postseason resume; Riverview was the 10th team in the region in the rankings. A win over Mooney would have solidified the team's case. Instead, the Rams will have to play the waiting game: final postseason-determining rankings will be released Sunday. Unlike Mooney, the Rams will not play an additional game Friday; Smithers said it would be too much following the team's recent stretch.
Like the Rams, the Sarasota High football program will be forced to wait and see its fate. Sailors coach Brody Wiseman said after the loss to the Rams that he was going to try to schedule a last-minute game for Friday to attempt one last resume-building win, but as of Nov. 1 no additional Sailors game has been announced. Wiseman also said he believes the team will still be in playoff position when the next rankings drop, perhaps in the No. 7- to No. 8-seed range instead of the No. 5 seed.
While frustrated with how the game against the Rams went — the Sailors had two touchdowns called back on penalties among other missed opportunities — Wiseman was adamant that his team has what it takes to compete with Riverview and other prestigious programs in the area.
"Our kids played well," Wiseman said. "On defense, that's the best we have played all year. We're close. We're close."
The only Sarasota-area team with a winning record is Booker High (5-4), which has won three-straight games and plays Lakewood Ranch High (6-3) on the road at 7 p.m. Friday. Yet in the Oct. 26 rankings, Booker was still on the outside of the playoff picture, slotted ninth in Class 2A Region 4 behind Lake Placid High (4-5). Since the rankings released, Booker has 33-22 win over Lemon Bay High (3-5) while Lake Placid has lost 29-22 to Hardee High (1-6). The Dragons play Neumann High (4-4) on Friday. Regardless of that game's outcome, a Booker win over Lakewood Ranch would seem to solidify the Tornadoes' postseason spot.
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.