Containing a mobile, athletic quarterback and defeating a team twice in the same season sounds like the hurdle Palmetto High needed to jump Friday night at Harllee Stadium to advance in the Class 6A-Region 3 playoffs.
And while that was precisely the test the Tigers passed against Braden River in a come-from-behind 24-21 victory, it’s also the same dilemma they’ll face in next week’s region semifinals.
Palmetto (10-1) faces Port Charlotte, a team whose only loss was to the Tigers and features a running quarterback in Logan Rogers, next Friday at Harllee Stadium.
Port Charlotte set up a rematch with Palmetto with a 21-6 victory on the road over Tampa Hillsborough, a district champ.
“If Port Charlotte had any doubt they can play with us, they’re going to see this and those kids are going to feed off this,” Palmetto head coach Dave Marino said. “So of course they’re going to come in here confident.”
After earning the No. 1 seed in 6A-Region 3 and rolling to a 4-0 record in district action, Palmetto received a wake-up call courtesy of Braden River.
The Pirates (4-7), a team much stronger than their record that was shaped with one of the toughest schedules in the area, pounced quickly Friday in a 6A-3 quarterfinal.
Braden River held leads of 14-0 and 21-10 until Palmetto’s offense sprung to life with big plays. Running back Sagel Hickson started the second-half comeback with a 36-yard run that preceded quarterback Xavier Williams’ 15-yard TD run.
Williams, who struggled in the first half and on the first two possessions of the second half, began finding confidence in his arm.
He then was called on to deliver late in the third quarter against a stiff breeze. Williams uncorked a pass to one of Palmetto’s athletic receivers, LaJohntay Wester, who caught it in stride and outran Braden River’s trailing defenders for an 85-yard touchdown.
That gave the Tigers a three-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, a period Palmetto’s defense bent but did not break in preserving the three-point victory.
They produced an interception from Daemon Hill and a turnover on downs when Wester’s younger brother, Jaylen, a sophomore who picked up a stinger to his left shoulder earlier in the game, tackled Braden River quarterback Shawqi Itraish short of the first-down marker.
“I’m not going to give up my brother’s senior year, so I just had to make the play,” Jaylen Wester said. “I just went into read and react, and that’s what happened.”
Wester’s defensive stop proved to be the last Braden River possession and was made possible when Palmetto’s defensive front — led by junior Floyd Dozier — put pressure on Itraish, who was effective all game in scrambling, to leave the pocket on the fourth-and-6 play.
“The quarterback wanted to sit back there, so we just got pressure on the quarterback as the D-line and Jaylen just came up and made the play,” Dozier said.
Palmetto turned the ball over three times and was flagged several times, but weathered the storm in downing a district rival for a second time this season.
Now the Tigers will have to do it again next week against Port Charlotte.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Marino said. “They’re going to come in just like Braden River did. There’s a reason (our district) got four teams in the playoffs.”
Meanwhile, Braden River’s season concluded, but the Pirates have something to build off heading into the offseason.
The Pirates are a young team and won’t lose a lot to graduation, and they lost several games by one possession, including Friday’s narrow defeat.
“We bring back a lot of guys, who have been through a lot of wars,” Braden River head coach Curt Bradley said. “To go play Port Charlotte, Clearwater Academy International, Palmetto in three straight weeks and go 0-3, but play one-possession football games, that’s something these guys can be proud of but also use as building blocks for the future.”