By Chris Bernhardt | Hernando TodayIf only they could have held on for 86 more seconds.
Published: November 16, 2012
Published: November 16, 2012
Nearly a year ago today, less than a minute and a half seemed to separate Hernando from an inevitable playoff victory, its first since 1997.
Somehow, in the near blink of an eye, Gainesville pulled off an improbable, and seemingly impossible, comeback in a Class 6A, Region II quarterfinal at Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium.
In four passes, the Hurricanes went from their only 9-yard line with 1:26 remaining to the end zone with 40 seconds to go, and held on for a 20-14 triumph.
That outcome triggered agony on one sideline; exhilaration on the other.
So yes, Hernando (6-4) and Gainesville (10-0) have some recent history to draw upon entering a 6A-II quarterfinal rematch tonight in Alachua County.
This time the 'Canes, by virtue of their 6A-District 5 championship, play host on their home turf at Citizens Field.
"The guys seem like they're going to be ready," Hernando head coach Dwayne Mobley said. "We'll know once we hit the field.
"The kids who were here last year, they know they should have won that game. And that was last year. We know this team is undefeated, but we played good enough last year to win the game."
This certainly isn't an identical situation to the previous meeting, and not only because of the change in venue.
These Leopards play for Mobley, in his first year at the helm, rather than John Palmer. The 'Canes do have that spotless record.
Oh, and according to the Associated Press 6A state poll, Hernando is facing the cream of the crop. Gainesville owns the top spot, garnering 11 of the 14 first-place votes.
"It was never our goal to go 10-0," Gainesville head coach James Thomson said. "Our goal was to win the district and win our county and now to win states. Everybody in the playoffs is 0-0. You've got to win or go home.
"We tried to ignore it (the number one ranking) for a while. But it got to the point where we're trying to defend it now."
How did the 'Canes earn such statewide recognition? Consider that they've outscored their opponents 405-127.
They haven't exactly played a weak schedule, either. Their closest win came Sept. 6 against Lake City-Columbia, ranked fifth in 6A, 17-14.
More recently, on Oct. 26 they won at Madison-Madison County, the fourth-ranked school in 3A, 14-9. No other team has come within single digits of Gainesville.
After reaching the regional finals last year, Thomson's first as headman, the 'Canes appear to have improved.
"I'd say we're a year better mentally more than anything," Thomson said. "We play a little faster in that aspect. It's a real unselfish group this year.
"That's probably the best quality we have as a team. Especially when you're ranked number one and people want to pat you on the back, we've stayed together as a group and I think that says a lot."
The statistics bare that out, and show the balance Gainesville boasts offensively.
Senior Rapheal Webb has rushed for 1,242 yards and 16 touchdowns, enough production to carry an offense by himself.
But then there's senior quarterback Mark Cato, who has completed 94-of-167 passes for 1,549 yards, throwing 21 touchdowns against six interceptions.
Case Harrison, Kenric Young, Chris Thompson and Larry Prunty have combined for 85 catches, 1,484 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Webb isn't the lone threat on the ground, either. Junior Tony James, a transfer from nearby Gainesville-Buchholz, has tallied 690 yards and six scores running the ball.
By comparison, Tyrail Hawkins leads the Leopards in rushing with 671 yards and eight touchdowns.
"They're pretty good. They've got a fast defense. Their offense is good," Mobley said. "We match up pretty well with them, what we do offensively and what we can do defensively.
"I can say whatever now, but it's going to be about guys coming out and playing. If our guys come out and play hard, do what they're supposed to do, we'll be OK. If they don't, we'll be in trouble."
No matter what, Hernando clearly faces a tall task in trying to derail a 'Canes squad with aspirations well beyond this round of the playoffs.
Traditional powerhouse Armwood, the team that beat Gainesville in the 2011 6A-II final before forfeiting its entire state championship season, appears more vulnerable than at any time in recent memory, coming into the postseason as the 6A-8 runner-up.
So the road to the Final Four figures to be a touch easier to navigate for everyone in the region, and the 'Canes have their eyes on collecting a state crown in the coming weeks.
"It's been that way since the beginning of the season," Thomson said. "Hopefully we can achieve it.
"One by one, we're going to go game by game, and our focus is on Hernando right now."
The Leopards have focused on themselves for much of the season, trying to correct some of the issues that made it a bit of a rollercoaster ride.
It began with a 0-3 start before a 6-1 run through the district. However the one loss, 28-7 to Springstead, forced them to settle for the 6A-6 runner-up spot.
Still, Hernando survived tough contests against Sunlake (14-10) and Nature Coast (14-7) to notch its third straight postseason appearance.
"It'd give it probably a C-plus, B-minus," Mobley said of the regular season. "We went through a lot of things this season. We don't have that many guys on the team. Some key guys got hurt.
"The first three games were real hard. Then we got into district play and played pretty well until we played Springstead. Springstead just wanted it more than we wanted it."
By following up that defeat by beating Nature Coast and Mitchell (27-3), and with a bye week to recharge the batteries, Hernando hopes to have picked up some steam.
"It was definitely the momentum we wanted and needed," Mobley said. "We felt pretty good coming out of it, and the work the kids have done this week.
"We're getting there. I think there are still some things we can do better. But we are moving in the right direction."
Obviously, the time has come for the Leopards to put it all together after an uneven performance to this point.
From the other side, Thomson wasn't about to overlook anyone. Not after what he saw in this round in 2011.
"Last year was such a great game," Thomson said. "Our kids remember that game. We're ready for a good, competitive game.
"Don't turn it over, and really limit their big plays. If we do those things, we'll be OK I think."
Neither coach reported any players as being out due to injury, each club benefitting from a week off.
So the setup is clear. One team can begin what is anticipated to be a long playoff run. Or the other team can pull off an upset that will reverberate around the state.
"I can tell you I'm hungry and I can tell you the kids seem very hungry," Mobley said. "But I can sit here and talk about it all day. The guys out there playing the game will show who is hungry and who is not.
"The team that wants the game the most is going to win this game."
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