EAST MANATEE -- Those big hits dished out from Braden River's defense each Friday night do more than generate "oohs" and "aahs" from the crowd.
They could net one particular player the bone award, a giant dog bone given weekly to the defensive player that produces the biggest hit or most hits in a game.
"It's signed with our name and our game, and everything," Pirates senior linebacker and co-captain Chase Balliette said.
Five bone awards have found their way to the linebackers , a corps comprised of Balliette, Ronnie McClellan, Noah Arce and Matthew Haftke.
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The group is a key cog in a Braden River defense that has baffled opponents with its unusual three-five scheme.
"Kind of like the Wing-T offense, you can't really replicate it and it's hard to see a game-look when things are going full speed," Balliette said.
The Pirates, utilizing pressure from three defensive lineman, a smash mouth linebacker corps and a ball hawking secondary, have allowed just 10 touchdowns against the defense this season.
On Friday, they'll be tested in the program's first foray in a region championship against a Plant City squad stacked with athletes at the skill positions.
Namely, wide receiver T.J. Chase, who played at IMG Academy last season and is a Clemson commit, and Antoine Thompson, who leads the Raiders in receiving yards, are the top targets.
"We just have to get our drops and be quick on our feet," Haftke said. "And use our eyes a lot."
But stopping the aerial threat
will be for naught if the Pirates don't contain Plant City tailback Markese Hargrove, who has rushed for more than 1,600 yards this season.
"You sit there and you want to say, 'Well, we've got to stop the pass,'" Braden River head coach Curt Bradley said. "Well, shoot, it starts with the 1,600-yard rusher they've got. Their offensive line is huge. They're really big kids. On film, they look like they are huge and (Hargrove) is slashing type runner that cuts things back."
And the key to stopping that run rests with the linebackers, who have tallied some gaudy tackle numbers this year.
McClellan, a senior middle linebacker, has 97 tackles (14 tackles for loss), 3 .5 sacks and three interceptions (one for a touchdown).
Balliette, a senior roving linebacker, leads the Pirates with 20.5 tackles for a loss, while sharing the team sack lead with four.
Arce, a junior strong side linebacker, has 62 tackles (10.5 TFL) and Haftke, a junior weak side linebacker, has 53 tackles (11 TFL) and 2.5 sacks.
The quartet, which also gets a fifth in FIU-bound senior JoJo Louis when he slots in at the nickel spot from the secondary, aren't highly recruited by colleges.
That's due to their sizes, which range from Arce, at 5-foot-7, to Balliette, at 6-feet even, that causes opponents to underestimate the group.
"I'm over here at 5-7," Arce said. "They're like, 'Yeah, he ain't going to do anything. He's too short."
"We're always joking how people get our film and go, 'God, this guys must suck,'" he said.
However, the group has wreaked havoc this season, using their own communication system to get the right coverage and play together for what is being called.
"There will be times like against Venice (last week), I had a play called and Ronnie basically checked out of it, because he saw something that tipped his hand," Bradley said. "I'm like, 'Ronnie, I didn't call that play.' 'I know, I checked to it.' Well, good job.'"
That frees Bradley up to call certain plays with supreme faith in McClellan and Co. to make the correct read on the field.
"They know the defense better than I do," Bradley said. "I don't have to guess. I can kind of call two plays in one, and he'll get us in the right one. And it makes life very easy on us."