ZEPHYRHILLS – Clay High took the proverbially drain out of the sink and the Zephyrhills attack, like a swirling bottle of spring water, was emptied by a crushing run game led by Aundre Carter’s …
ZEPHYRHILLS – Clay High took the proverbially drain out of the sink and the Zephyrhills attack, like a swirling bottle of spring water, was emptied by a crushing run game led by Aundre Carter’s third near-300 yard effort and opportunistic defense as the Blue Devils ‘survived and advanced’ for a second week with a 52-49 win over No. 2-seed Zephyrhills to earn a region 2-5A championship game berth Friday night at Baker County High School.
“We knew Zephyrhills would be tough to contain,” said Clay coach Joshua Hoekstra, who has coined the phrase ‘survive and advance’ as his Blue Devils travel a third week to continue playing. “With the player of the year as quarterback, they like to run up the score. We had to put him in a box and control the game.”
Clay, with scintillating wins over Hernando High, 41-37, and now 52-49 over Zephyrhills, used a defensive third quarter shutout, a 28 point offensive third quarter, and had to lean hard on their defense to close the deal in the fourth to hand the Bulldogs their only home loss this season with the 52-49 victory. Baker County, the top seed of region 2-5A, has wins of 34-7 over Nature Coast Tech and 37-28 over Pedro Menendez for their region berth.
“Unbelievable! We’ve been in so many of these battles, especially the last five years here with this program,” said Hoekstra. “We’ve won six times on the road, 13 wins in the playoffs and I can’t say enough about the defense. You put up 52 points against a team that averages giving up only 14 a game, what can I say? That was a lot of fun!”
For the second week in a row, the Clay Blue Devils loaded up the traveling road show and traveled half way across the state to showcase Clay football. In a game with too many highlights to list in one place, the Blue Devils used every weapon in their arsenal to attack and stun the home Bulldogs, including a standout first ever start from sophomore fullback Edwin Garcia.
“When the opportunity comes” said Hoekstra, “you just have to take advantage of it.”
The game was different from the start with the Bulldogs winning the coin toss, but not deferring. Zephyrhills would take that opening drive 69 yards in two plays to begin the score-fest. With a missed point after, Clay found themselves down very early, 6-0.
On their ensuing drive, Clay used a steady dose of Carter-power to drive the ball down to the Bulldog 18, where they would stall. Kicker Liz Fogarty nailed a perfect 35 yard field goal in what would end up being one of the two key turning points of the game.
“I didn’t win this game, I just did my job” said an elated Fogarty. “I did my job, but did you see our defense? Our offense put up 52 points! I did my job but boy did this team come together as a whole.”
With the score at 6-3, the Bulldogs would only need two plays to go another 69 yards and a two point conversion to bring the score to 14-3.
After the Clay defense settled in and made adjustments, both team’s next three sets of possessions would result in punts into the second quarter.
In the second, as Zephyrhills was once again stalled and looked to punt, Clay defensive back Dakari Augustin made a beeline for the punter and blocked the Bulldog punt to give Clay the ball on the Zephyrhills 11.
On the next play, Clay quarterback Caleb Eason threw a perfect scoring strike to Cedric Brown. “I was thinking if they are stopping our run game, I have to step up,” said Eason. “If I don’t it won’t be a great night. I made a couple passes here and there and it opened it up for Aundre so he could finish off the game.”
After the good point after, Clay was back in the hunt only down by four at 14-10 at 10:01 left in the quarter. The Clay Crazies were right back in the game and momentum began to build. That was until the ensuing kickoff when the Bulldogs ran East-West for the entire width of the field, slipped by three Clay defenders, and ran for 75 yard touchdown.
Now down 21-10 with 9:44 still left until the half, it was time for the Clay offensive machine to get into high gear. Leaning on the feet of Carter and the hands of Brown once again, the Blue Devils marched 75 yards, capped off with another Carter touchdown from five yards out to close the score 21-17.
After the ensuing kickoff, the Bulldogs started out on their 47 yard line. On fourth and nine yards to go on the Clay 40, they displayed the skills of Harrison with a 31 yard strike that caught the Blue Devils off-guard. Three plays later, Harrison scrambled for another touchdown bringing the score to 28-17. The kick back to Clay was another worm burner picked up by Raequan Williams. Rather than falling on it, Williams took off and got the ball down to the Bulldog 38.
After a short Carter run, Eason found Ajay Belanger streaking across for a 16-yard gain. Eason would scramble for an 8-yard gain and the drive was topped off with another Carter touchdown from 36 yards out. The good point after put the Blue Devils right back in the game.
Only down by a touchdown, all the momentum seemed to change over to Clay. The Bulldogs needed something quick. With only 31 seconds to work with until the half, they went to the air and found a receiver deep. Inside the Clay 20, they used another quick out pass to the sideline to stop the clock with two tenths of a second left until the half. The Bulldog field goal unit set up and the Clay defenders came through, blocking the attempt and holding the score to within one touchdown going into the locker room at halftime. This blocked field goal along with Fogarty’s field goal earlier in the game would be the key points to the game not going into overtime.
The third quarter was all Blue Devil. The coin toss decision worked right into Clay’s hands and they did not disappoint. On the third quarter opening drive, Clay used pass attempts as well as steady runs from Carter to march 63 yards and another Carter touchdown.
“I needed to just keep doing what I was doing,” said Carter. “Coach told me keep moving your feet, pick the knees up and just run hard. Just keep punishing them. All gas, no brakes!”
The prescription was just what the doctor ordered. Once Clay took the 31-28 lead, there was no looking back. Zephyrhills would turn the ball over on downs to give Clay the ball around the 50. Using Carter to get the ball moving on the ground to the 24, Eason again found Belanger open for another Clay score. Up by 10, 38-28, the Clay defense made the right adjustments in the locker room to force a Bulldog three and out punt. Starting on their 42 yard line, Carter would need only one play to streak down the field 58 yards pushing the score to 45-28. The next Zephyrhills drive would again end in a three and out punt.
The ensuing Blue Devil drive began on their own 29, and after runs by Spencer LeSage, Carter, and Brown, Swilley rumbled 43 yards to paydirt, putting Clay up 52-28 as the Blue Devil defense skunked the Bulldogs offense for the entire quarter.
The fourth quarter started out with a Bulldog touchdown to get the score to 52-36 after a two point conversion.
After the kick back, Clay began driving when Tymious Goodman was brought in to give Carter a one play breather. On his run up the middle, a Bulldog helmet was squared up on the ball and dislodged it from Goodman’s grip. The Bulldogs came up with the ball and began a drive from the Clay 43. Burning off almost three minutes, the Bulldogs again scored pulling the score to 52-42 after a failed two point conversion. Clay’s possession would burn another 2-plus minutes and the ball was turned over on downs when an Eason to Carter pass was too short. On the following Bulldog drive, Raequan Williams came up big with a huge sack for loss, forcing Zephyrhills to use a timeout.
“Next play. That’s what I’m thinking.” Williams said. “I’m always thinking of that next play. I’m not focused on the last play. I’m always focused on the next play. That’s how you do it in the playoffs.”
With 4:15 left, the Clay swarming defense had Harrison sacked once again, but a flag came out. Clay was called for targeting and the personal foul gave the Bulldogs new life. Two passes and a point after later, Zephyrhills had the score at 52-49. Clay’s Cody Devore fought and recovered the onside kick. With the ball back, Clay began the clock killing with a steady diet of Carter, Brown, and Christian Swilley which forced the Bulldogs to burn their last two timeouts. With a fresh set of downs and no timeouts left, Hoekstra called for victory formation and the Blue Devils paved their path back to Baker County.
Kicker Liz Fogarty was again perfect on the night with a field goal, and seven point after scores.