By Jordan Kroeger and Bryan Levine
Friday night was an instant classic high school football game between Charlotte and Port Charlotte, as only three times in the 36-game rivalry has the final score been closer than it was this time.
The Tarpons overcame a 17-point deficit to defeat the Pirates 21-17 and clinch another District 6A-10 title.
It was a bizarre play that handed the Tarpons a victory when running back Maleek Williams fumbled just outside the end zone, and Andrew Grace beat multiple Pirates to the loose ball to recover it for the go-ahead score midway through the fourth quarter.
Until then, it looked as though the homestanding Pirates would claim their fifth victory in the series, but third since 2012.
There’s now clarity to the playoff picture for the Class 6A-3 regional quarterfinals, with Charlotte earning the right to host Boca Ciega by winning. Port Charlotte will travel to Clearwater.
Those games will be played on Nov. 11, but the start times are still to be determined.
Just like last year, it’s very likely Charlotte and Port Charlotte could meet again in the regional semifinals.
That was hard for some of Port Charlotte’s players to comprehend following Friday’s loss. Many Pirates were emotionally upset, angry or sad but looking for comfort from teammates, coaches, family and friends.
But if the Pirates take away one thing from the loss, it should be motivation. They should be motivated to play the Tarpons again.
Port Charlotte coach Jordan Ingman hopes to get his guys to realize that.
“I’m very proud of our kids, especially when a young group of men work as hard as they do and do things the right way and prepare the right way, for the outcome to be like that is very challenging,” he said. “But I have a lot of confidence in our young men that they will rebound as they have all year.”
When there’s heartbreak on one sideline there’s always jubilation on the other. The Tarpons were a confident bunch after the game and even admitted they still were during the game when they trailed 17-0 late in the second quarter.
“Port Charlotte had their home crowd. They had everything going in the first half. Our defense got caught by surprise, but we had to come through it and we came out with a win,” said Charlotte receiver Jacob White, who caught six passes for 85 yards.
Friday night was the second time Charlotte had to rally this season, the other against district foe North Fort Myers. The Tarpons now have home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs in two weeks and believe they can overcome any adversity that comes their way.
“This is just one stepping stone,” Charlotte receiver Lavell Cudjo said. “Now, we’re on top of the district and we keep going.”
Charlotte quarterback Dee Hicks simplified Cudjo’s thoughts.
“We’re not done yet.”
Despite a touchdown in the first half for Williams, the Port Charlotte defense contained him for much of the first two quarters. The powerful senior was stuffed at the line for his first pair of carries, and totaled nine rushes of zero or negative yards.
But Charlotte coach Binky Waldrop didn’t go away from his big running back. Williams, who has committed to Arkansas, had 13 carries for 60 yards in the second half.
“We knew if we just stayed with it he was going to pop soon,” Hicks said. “It’s hard tackling 225 (pounds) every play, so it was exciting just to stay with it.”
Williams’ second-quarter touchdown was the first of two scores the Tarpons had in less than 30 seconds right before the close of the half. The second was set up by a fumble recovery on the first play after the kickoff following Williams’ touchdown.
Hicks and his teammates knew how big those two scores were.
“It brought life to us,” Hicks said. “We knew it was going to happen, but that helped it happen fast.”
The injury to Ernest Harvey also was one with importance which can’t be quantified. Even though Marc Jean-Louis did an excellent job picking up Harvey’s slack in the first half (thanks to 111 yards at the break), the Charlotte defense stifled him in the second half.
Jean-Louis had seven carries in the second half, and six of them went for negative yards, ending the game with 96 rushing yards.
On the final drive for Port Charlotte, they were moving the ball before an interception by Hicks, with the help of some trickery.
A halfback pass from Jean-Louis to Shawn Campbell went for 35 yards, and a couple of plays later, the Pirates tried a reverse halfback pass, which turned out to be successful thanks to a defensive pass interference.