By Bryan Levine, SunCoast Sports
PUNTA GORDA — Charlotte football fans will remember the 2016 season for a long time because of all the team has accomplished.
The Tarpons (12-0) are undefeated, won the third regional title in program history, and are about to play in the state semifinals against Miami Carol City (9-3). But the road to this point hasn’t been a cake walk.
Yet as the tests toughened, the Tarpons always found a way to come up with the answers.
The toughest to date happened Friday in a 27-24 win over Fort Myers in double overtime to clinch the region championship.
“It was crazy. There’s no doubt about it,” Coach Binky Waldrop said. “What an intense 48 minutes — actually longer than that if you count the overtime — but I’m just proud of our kids and I’m happy for Charlotte High School and our community for getting to win a game like that. It was pretty cool.”
When the Tarpons took the field to begin the third quarter trailing 14-0, the Charlotte fans could be heard cheering and chanting loudly for their team in an effor to re-energize them.
“It felt good going to bed Friday night a regional champ,” Waldrop said. “It’s something that doesn’t happen very often in your life. There’s a lot of pieces to this puzzle. It’s not just me. It’s me, our coaching staff, our players, our administration, our community. It’s a bunch of different things that drive this program.
“Our community is such a big part of our football program. It’s really kind of neat. We do a lot of things with people in our community, and it’s a special feeling knowing that those people will always have our back.”
Friday wasn’t the first challenge the Tarpons had faced this year. Yes, there were plenty of blowouts along the way, especially to start the season, but as the competition grew tougher, so did the Tarpons.
There were a pair of games in the regular season which easily could have gone the other way if not for the determined, experienced group of seniors. The first was a 24-21 win over North Fort Myers, where the Tarpons trailed by four points at halftime.
The other, an obviously more memorable game, was the 21-17 victory over rival Port Charlotte. The Tarpons trailed 17-0 before rallying for 21 unanswered points.
But Waldrop knows in order to be successful, you need more than just talent.
“To go deep in the playoffs, there’s so many things that have to go your way,” he said. “You have to get breaks along the way, at any level. You look at Super Bowl championships, or national champions in college.
“Look at us, we could’ve lost the North Fort Myers game. We could’ve lost the Port Charlotte game. We could’ve lost Friday night. You look at every championship team, there’s games like that somewhere along the line those people won. We have 19 seniors. We’re a very experienced football team. When you have 19 seniors, and they all play a big role in what you do, you should win games like that.”
Injuries were another adversity Charlotte had to overcome. Every team, especially those still playing games into December, faces injuries, but few teams lose a player as dynamic as D’Vonte Price and still come up with ways to replace that production.
One of the players who began to emerge toward the end of the season, grow a larger role in the offense and help replace Price was Lavell Cudjo. The senior had a big touchdown in that Port Charlotte game, then came back the next week with 56 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Unfortunately for Cudjo and the Tarpons, he is now out with a shoulder injury, which he suffered earlier in the playoffs.
“Obviously, we’re a different team with D’Vonte back,” Waldrop said. “Who’s out and who’s hurt, it affects what you do a little bit, but we have different things we do with different kids. It’s football. Kids are going to get hurt.
“Lavell is a great kid. I can’t tell you how happy I was he came back out for football this year, and we wouldn’t be where we are without what he’s done for us along the way.”
Even though last week was difficult for the Tarpons, Friday will easily be the toughest game Charlotte has faced all season. Maxpreps ranks Carol City No. 2 in Florida and the No. 1 in Class 6A.
If they find a way one more time to pass this test, they’ll be headed to Orlando for the state championship in the final game of a season Charlotte fans will certainly remember for a long time.