By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
PUNTA GORDA — There’s no Charlotte-Port Charlotte rematch in their county football rivalry.
Instead, the undefeated Tarpons face another unbeaten team in the Class 6A regional semifinals at 7:30 p.m. at home.
Here come the Tornadoes, and one heck of a storm, built by a strong front on both sides of the ball and surrounded by playmakers with multiple Division I offers. Clearwater took it to Port Charlotte in last Friday’s quarterfinal, jumping to a 14-0 lead it never relinquished on the way to an impressive 27-16 victory.
Tonight’s game shapes up to be the Tarpons’ toughest contest yet, but one they insist they’re ready for. Everything clicked in Charlotte’s first-round victory over Boca Ciega as the Tarpons ran out to a 35-0 lead — using big plays on offense combined with hard-hitting plays on defense — to start a running clock midway through the third quarter.
The split between the teams felt a lot greater than the 35-6 final, and the Tarpons will need another fast start tonight.
“It’s important. It’s a playoff game so you have to start fast,” Charlotte quarterback Dee Hicks said. “If you come out and give any team points, they’re going to beat you.”
Charlotte’s intensity was there from the opening kickoff against Boca Ciega. The Tarpons were helped by the return of D’Vonte Price, who caught two touchdown passes from Hicks and ran for another in his first game since suffering a broken collarbone six weeks earlier.
Price’s return was even more instrumental considering running back Maleek Williams left the game after two plays due to an injured ankle. Williams hopes to play tonight, but regardless, the Tarpons (10-0) know they’ll need to bring the same intensity they had last week to face the Tornadoes (10-0).
“We played a great game the other night. We did a lot of things well and we have to continue to do that,” Charlotte coach Binky Waldrop said. “We’ve done a great job protecting the ball. We’re plus-18 in turnover ratio right now and that’s an incredible number. At this point, everybody left playing is good and things really, really come down to turnovers.
“They’re going to happen in the game, you just hope they don’t happen at the wrong time like late in the game. We’ve just got to try and keep them focused and do things right, but I think it’ll be a great game (tonight). It’ll go down to the wire so let’s get it on and see what happens.”
Waldrop isn’t kidding when he says every team left is talented. That couldn’t be truer of Clearwater, which is led be 3-star athlete prospect Jacquez Jones.
Jones, a Tennessee commit, has racked up 900 receiving yards, 237 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns this season, and he can put his fingerprints on a game in a variety ways. Port Charlotte managed to hold him in check on offense — he only finished with 48 yards from scrimmage on 11 touches — but he still broke away for a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown before finally catching a 27-yard score later in the night.
Those were backbreaking plays for Port Charlotte, something Charlotte can’t afford.
“The wideout is a really special kid,” Waldrop said. “When he gets the ball in space he makes kids miss and goes. He’s super fast and that’s why he’s going to Tennessee.”
The buck doesn’t stop with Jones.
Quarterback Austin Day is completing 66 percent of his passes for 1,733 yards and 19 touchdowns. When Day isn’t throwing or handing off to Jones, he’s handing off to Jarius Williams, who has 806 yards and nine touchdowns in 2016.
Then there’s the defense, which will try and slow Charlotte’s efficient offense. Defensive ends Tramar Reece and Garet Chisolm have combined for 19 sacks on a team that’s totaled 34.
“They have a couple of defensive linemen that are big-time,” Waldrop said. “They’re very good up front on both sides of the ball. They’re athletic.
“The quarterback is phenomenal. He just looks like he’d be an unbelievable 7-on-7 quarterback. He doesn’t move bad either.”
Waldrop just hopes it doesn’t turn into a shootout.
“We’re not going to hold this group to six points. You just don’t do that when you play great athletes,” Waldrop said. “I think there’s some things we can do with them. I think we have a good plan going in to hopefully slow (Jones) down a little bit, but you can’t just completely forget about the other guys on the field. We’ll see what happens. It’ll be interesting.”
To say the least.