Rodshon Williams sat nearly motionless on the Palmetto High School bench as the Tigers ran their final plays of a 28-3 loss to Venice, towel in his right hand, face in the towel. To his left, Christian Kalish, a fellow senior starter on the offensive line, sat equally as still, his right hand draped around Williams’ shoulders.
Silent Tigers sat strewn along the home bench at Harllee Stadium after 28 unanswered points by the Indians kept Palmetto out of the postseason for the second consecutive season. Williams and Kalish, two of the Tigers’ top seniors and the anchors of Palmetto’s best offensive unit, will finish their final seasons without a playoff game.
“We knew they weren’t going to lay down and die,” Tigers head coach Dave Marino said after Venice rallied for the win. “That’s a championship program. It’s a playoff program.”
An hour and a half earlier, Palmetto (6-3, 3-2 Class 7A-District 11) went to the locker room in a moment of unbridled joy. A last-second, 27-yard field goal by kicker Freddy Manriquez sent the Tigers into the break with a 3-0 lead. Manriquez pumped his fist as he turned back for the locker room as his linemen hopped behind him.
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Improbably, the offensively-deficient Tigers had been the first team to take a lead on the Indians (8-0, 5-0) this season. A week after falling behind early and never managing a competitive game against Braden River, Palmetto led its must-win district finale at halftime.
“When we went into the locker room, we were feeling it,” Kalish said. “We were feeling like we were king on top of the hill.”
But the Tigers’ three-point lead could have been larger, and wasn’t nearly enough of a cushion to fend off Venice. Palmetto moved into the red zone twice during the first half and reached at least midfield on all four of its drives during the opening 24 minutes.
One red-zone trip ended without any points after a low snap prevented Manriquez from attempting a 23-yarder. On the second, the Tigers settled for a field goal as the clock dwindled toward zero while Palmetto took a first-and-goal snap from the Indians’ 10-yard line.
The Tigers ran 38 offensive plays during the first half to Venice’s 16, using a bruising rushing attack. Paco Garcia, a converted defensive tackle, carried the ball 14 times for 58 yards in the first half, while quarterback Jason Spicer Jr. added 74 yards on 12 carries. Spicer finished the game with a season-high 106 rushing yards on 24 carries, plus 73 yards on 8 of 16 passing.
“We could’ve definitely scored a lot more points than that in the first half,” Kalish said.
Instead, Venice only needed five second-half plays to take the lead for good. Three runs by running back Matthew Laroche and a pass from quarterback Bryce Carpenter to wide receiver Jaivon Heiligh moved the Indians out to their 45.
With a second-and-five near midfield, Carpenter held the ball and ran toward the left sideline. He followed his blockers to burst through the the Tigers’ secondary and outrun the defense for a 55-yard, go-ahead touchdown run.
“We needed a three-and-out,” Marino said. “We knew they were going to come out hungry.”
Palmetto’s ensuing drive ended with a high snap on a punt, which wound up netting negative yardage. Venice used the short field to stretch its lead to 14-3 and begin pushing the Tigers out of reach. Carpenter ran for another touchdown on the first drive of the fourth quarter and iced the victory with a touchdown pass to tight end Aaron Hackett with 8:37 remaining.
The Indians had a chance to celebrate a district title on Palmetto’s field a year after a win against the Tigers in Venice ensured a playoff spot in Class 7A-11. Indians head coach John Peacock could smile with relief.
Who: Palmetto at Punta Gorda Charlotte
When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.