TARPON SPRINGS — This is the one that counts. Really.
The nearby rivalries against East Lake and Countryside? Sure, they're big; they're important. But other than bragging rights and machismo, neither result has much bearing on playoff potential. In fact, there's no effect whatsoever.
So considering Tarpon Springs dropped both of those local battles by a combined score of 84-9, it's probably a good way for the Spongers to look at it at this juncture. Those two setbacks, and a 27-3 loss to Tampa Catholic, represent all three of the program's defeats this year — all out of league.
The Spongers are 4-3 overall and 2-0 in Class 5A District 8 competition, and Friday night is the big one. Lakewood High (5-2, 3-0) brings its talented roster and stifling defense up to Tarpon Springs trying to secure the same thing the Spongers want to swipe away from the Spartans' tight grip: home-field advantage in the postseason tournament.
Both teams have lived up to expectations this year in terms of getting to this moment unscathed in the district. But getting a solid read on Lakewood or Tarpon Springs continues to be a difficult task from week to week.
The Spartans enter as a clear favorite Friday night, but they've had moments of playing to their competition – Week 1's 15-13 loss at Countryside and only beating Gibbs 24-14 be ing examples. Lakewood's defense, though, has been legit all year long, surrendering just 9.3 points per game.
If Tarpon Springs had to pick one time this year for its performance to step it up in a big game, this would be the right moment. Aside from a quality win over above-average Osceola High, the Spongers have been unable to compete with superior competition.
It's imperative for Michael Ford, Michael Johnson and Patrick Miller to establish a running attack, but against a defense like Lakewood's that's going to require showing at least some semblance of a passing attack.
Meanwhile, over on the other side of Lake Tarpon, there's another league-title bout going down this Friday.
East Lake can push its perfect record to 8-0 overall and 4-0 in Class 7A District 9 with a win over also-unbeaten Pinellas Park. Somewhat similar to the Lakewood-Tarpon Springs game, East Lake is expected to handle its business.
At first blush, this does looks like a Patriots team that could present a problem for the Eagles. They rush for a self-reported 435.7-per-game average and have outscored their opponents by a combined 266-51.
Imposing numbers. Less-than-impressive, though, is 13-39, the the combined record of Pinellas Park's seven opponents.
The Patriots only pass the ball about five times per game, so if East Lake's big boys in the box go to work like they're expected to, Pinellas Park's night is going to get real long real quick
Also not boding well for the Patriots is East Lake's attention to ball security. Getting a momentum-shifting turnover or two is one of the few ways Pinellas Park stays in this game. The Patriots defense has taken away possession 15 times this season but East Lake's only committed five of the mistakes through seven games.
Bring that type of discipline to the field Friday and the Eagles should be celebrating a third-straight district championship for the first time in school history.