Only eight football teams remain in each of the Florida High School Athletic Association's four suburban classifications' postseasons.
Sarasota is home to three of them.
Cardinal Mooney High, Riverview High and Booker High are alive and will compete for spots in their classes' state semifinals Nov. 24. All three teams defeated higher seeds in the regional semifinals to get to this point.
Here's what each team needs to do to keep on the winning path.
Cardinal Mooney High (9-2) vs. Victory Christian Academy (6-5)
The Cougars found a stroke of good fortune when Victory Christian, the No. 4 seed in the school's Class 1S region, upset No. 1 seed Zephyrhills Christian Academy (8-3) 29-26 on Nov. 17. The upset not only gives the Cougars a game against a lower seed, but allows Mooney to remain the home team in the Class 1S regional finals.
On the field, the Cougars exemplify multiplicity. The team has used two quarterbacks since senior quarterback Michael Valentino returned from injury on Oct. 27. Valentino had missed the previous four games, with sophomore quarterback Devin Mignery taking his place.
Now, Valentino and Mignery make a formidable duo. Against Lakeland Christian on Nov. 17, the two quarterbacks combined for four touchdown passes and threw zero interceptions. The team even tried using the two players on the field at the same time, opening the potential for misdirection and play action stemming from those formations.
Meanwhile, senior running back Carson Beach continued his strong final season at Mooney against Lakeland Christian, racking up 156 yards and three touchdowns. Beach, who has been the Cougars' starting running back since he was a freshman, has impressed his head coach with his consistency during games and in practice.
"He loves the game of football," Mooney Head Coach Jared Clark said of Beach. "He’s worked his tail off for four years. And he just keeps getting better every week."
Clark also complimented the job offensive line coach Dave Marino has done in getting his blockers prepared for the postseason run. Clark said the team's lineman want to see Beach and the quarterbacks break off big runs and have worked to achieve that goal.
Do that against Victory Christian, and the Cougars can punch a ticket to the state semifinals.
Riverview High (8-4) at Venice High (10-2)
At this point, the Rams and Indians meeting in the playoffs feels like deja vu.
This will be the third-straight year the two programs have met in the postseason. The Indians have won the previous two — on their way to two state championship game appearances, with one win) — and seven straight overall in the series. The most recent meeting, on Sept. 29, saw Venice win 35-14 at home. The loss kickstarted a run of three losses for the Rams.
Things look different for Riverview now. The Rams have won five straight games, including a 35-30 road win over Manatee High (9-3) in the Class 4S regional semifinals on Nov. 17. Riverview ran for 278 yards and four touchdowns in that game (6.5 yards per carry) and have the potential to do the same to the Indians: in the last meeting, the Rams' backfield put 271 rushing yards and two touchdowns on Venice.
But scoring on the Indians won't matter if the Rams can't stop the Venice attack. In the last meeting, the Indians ran for 6.7 yards per carry (160 yards) and four touchdowns, while senior quarterback Jadyn Glasser threw for 210 yards and a touchdown. The Indians are averaging 46.2 points per game in 2023. The Rams will likely have to Venice well below its average to have a realistic shot at an upset.
Riverview junior linebacker Landon Marsters, who leads the team with 101 total tackles, can be a game-changer if he can limit big plays from the Indians' running game. Rams Head Coach Josh Smithers said Marsters' tackle numbers stem from a combination of natural talent and football smarts. Smithers said Marsters made the switch to inside linebacker from outside linebacker in the middle of the season because of the team's injury situation and did not miss a beat. He simply knows where to be on a given play, Smithers said.
Marsters also leads the team with two interceptions; a forced turnover can lead to big swings in momentum at this time of year. A play of that magnitude against Venice or a boatload of tackles could be just what the Rams need to pull the upset.
Booker High (8-4) at Bishop Verot High (11-1)
The Tornadoes will have to pull another upset against the Vikings to reach the Class 2S state semifinals — but upsets are nothing new to this Booker group.
Booker has beaten higher-seeded teams on the road in each of the first two rounds of the postseason, first winning 33-17 over Fort Meade High (9-1), then winning 14-0 over Lemon Bay High (10-2) on Nov. 17.
The Tornadoes have won each game a different way: They stuffed the rushing stat sheet against Fort Meade, running 44 times for 344 yards (7.8 yards per carry) and five touchdowns, before leaning on their defense against Lemon Bay. Booker allowed the Manta Rays' offense to cross midfield twice: one drive ended in an interception by sophomore safety Karaijus Hayes, while the other ended in a turnover on downs.
Bishop Verot will likely be the team's biggest test yet. In the last FHSAA rankings of the regular season, updated Nov. 4, Bishop Verot was the top team in the region and the No. 30 team in all of Florida's classifications; Booker was the No. 7 team in the region and No. 209 overall. But Booker has played its best football down the stretch. Under Head Coach Scottie Littles, the Tornadoes will not shy away from the challenge.
To win, Booker will have to shut down Bishop Verot's passing game. Vikings junior quarterback Carter Smith is a University of Michigan commit and has thrown 29 touchdowns to just one interception. His favorite target is Matthew Turner, who has 46 catches for 946 yards and 15 touchdowns. But the Tornadoes cannot overlook the Vikings' running game, either: Sophomore running back Deshon Jenkins Jr. has 1,092 yards and 12 touchdowns. The attack combination can be potent, as Cardinal Mooney found out on Oct. 20: Bishop Verot beat the Cougars 50-14.
For Booker to hang around, the team's front seven defensive players need to control the game. A big game from junior defensive lineman Jordan Radkey (86 tackles, 22 tackles for loss), junior linebacker Daijen Walton (62 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss) or senior lineman Rahshad Hill (47 tackles, 17 tackles for loss) would be a boost.
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.