EAST MANATEE -- When Justin Ross was a sophomore, he had no idea what it took to win football games.
A year ago as a junior, Ryan Neuzil didn't know what it was like to catch a pass in a football game because he was an interior lineman.
The learning curve for those two standouts and the entire Braden River football team was displayed when the host Pirates defeated Palmetto 38-14 Friday night to win the Class 7A-District 10 championship.
It was the first district title for the Braden River football program, which was 1-9 two years ago, 5-4 last season and now 8-0 with one regular season game left,
Palmetto came into the game with a reputation for having an explosive offense, but it was the Pirates behind Ross, Neuzil and quarterback Jacob Huesman who dialed up the points rolling up 38 points in three quarters before it went strictly to the ground game in the final period.
Ross put on an offensive clinic. The senior wide receiver scored Braden River's first three touchdowns on passes of 60 and 12 yards and added another TD on a reverse he took 30 yards for a touchdown. He finished with seven receptions for 119 yards.
"I just tell him (Huesman) to throw it up there and I am going to get it," Ross said. "It feels good coming from 1-9 two years ago. I've never been in this situation before. I never thought this would happen two years ago, but we dedicated ourselves to the weight room to get stronger mentally and physically and we didn't miss any days."
Neuzil had to lobby Braden River head coach Curt Bradley to move him to tight end, telling the head coach and offensive coordinator Eric Sanders he had good hands.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior showed his mettle with five catches for 94 yards, including some big receptions that threw Palmetto's defense off.
"It's the most catches I've ever had. I was open, and Jake knew where to look," Neuzil said. "There were more plays for me this week because I wasn't used much in the past, and they didn't have anything to look at on me or scouting reports. I knew I could catch passes and I had some great blocking, particularly by Alex Salguero on one big play I had (30 yards)."
The teams traded two touchdowns apiece in the first quarter with Palmetto scoring on and 8-yard pass from Jack Allison to Dearius Washington and a 42-yard run by Quincy Washington.
Braden River's defense had its way with Allison, the highly touted junior who has verbally committed to Miami, intercepting four passes and limiting him to 144 yards through the air and shutting out the Tigers offense in the second half.
While Allison struggled, Huesman played his usual crisp game, connecting on 18 of 25 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns.
"We feel our quarterback can play with anybody," Bradley said. "He is great with the football and continually does what he needs to do and makes great plays for us."
The Pirates took a 24-14 halftime lead on a 25-yard field goal by Kyle Thoma. They scored two touchdowns in the third quarter. Ronnie McClellan intercepted a pass he returned to the Tigers' 6, and on the next play Carlos Crawford took it in. The last touchdown came on a 1-yard from Raymond Thomas.
"The best thing is for the kids that were here and the coaches that were here from that 1-9 season. To start where we were and be where we are now that growth and that improvement for those young men is what it's all about," Bradley said. "We attribute it to hard work and dedication and a commitment from the coaching staff and the community and from the players. The players stood their ground and took all that chastising and went to work."