EAST MANATEE -- Ronnie McClellan is not big, not particularly fast and not necessarily strong.
"He just makes plays," Braden River head football coach Curt Bradley said. "He is one of those kids you love to coach because he is always going to be there and is tough as nails."
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior linebacker leads the Pirates in tackles (47) and tackles for loss (13.5).
The Braden River roster is full of kids Bradley loves to coach for a variety of reasons. Their common denominator is passion for the game.
Never miss a local story.
These kids just want to enjoy football and win. The two ideas didn't mesh until Bradley's arrival prior to the 2012 season.
The program had become a carousel of head coaches, and in 2012 the Pirates lost their first nine games before finishing 1-9.
But that '12 team was different, with Bradley in his first year. He told his players he wouldn't quit on them like previous coaches. He promised good things would happen if they continued to work hard.
He kept his word. The Pirates are 7-0, have clinched a playoff berth and can win the program's first district title with a victory over visiting Palmetto on Friday night.
"These kids have developed and grown into young men that have earned this right. Nothing has been given to them. They came from a miserable sophomore season to a chance to do some great things their senior season," Bradley said.
These kids don't just want to play football. They are committed.
JoJo Louis epitomizes that.
When he was carried off the field Oct. 2 against Sarasota, all he thought about was playing his next game. What appeared to be a serious neck injury was a concussion that allowed him to return for last week's victory over North Port.
"My only worry was that I couldn't play football anymore," Louis said. "... Now we are playing a game that is the biggest in our history, and I am glad to be part of it."
Linebacker Jimiah Albritton was a sophomore on that one-win team and knows how hard it is to earn respect on the football field, which is why he embraces the moment his next game will bring.
"The seniors on this team have all been down. Now we are up, but we are still going to play as if we've got something to prove," Albritton said. "Palmetto is a great team with a lot of weapons and good athletes and know how to play the game. But we are going to play with confidence."
McClellan gives credit to his teammates for the lofty numbers he has piled up.
"The line has done a great job of giving me an opportunity to make plays along with the whole defense, which just flies to the ball," McClellan said. "I just go out there and hit people. You can't be afraid. It helps having a good secondary with guys like JoJo back there because you know they can make plays."
The Pirates have only give up 70 points, but will have to be at their best against a Palmetto team (3-4, 3-0 7A-10 district) that has scored 94 points in its three district games and have explosive athletes all over the field, led by University of Miami commit Jack Allison at quarterback.
"We understand Palmetto is a great team, has played a bear of a schedule and their record is not indicative of how good a team they are," Bradley said. "For us, we welcome the opportunity to go out and play for a district title."
If the Pirates' defense struggles to keep the Palmetto scoring down, the Pirates are banking on their offense to keep pace. Junior quarterback Jacob Huesman isn't nationally touted like Allison, but he has played near-perfect football. He only became a starter at the end of his sophomore year and is just starting to earn recognition thanks to a resume that includes 12 TD passes and just one interception.
"Jacob is smart, doesn't try to force things and takes what the defense gives him," Braden River offensive coordinator Eric Sanders said. "He doesn't hold onto the football too long and if the window pops open he throws it. Palmetto will be a tough challenge. Their defense is extremely good. They come off the ball extremely well and have a good secondary and linebackers."