The Catholic Crusaders passed the first part of their test, knocking off West Florida in the season finale to wrap up the regular season with a perfect 10-0 record.
Now comes the hard part.
The Crusaders enter the Class 5A state playoffs as the top-ranked team in the state and will try to live up to that billing tonight when they host Tallahassee Rickards at 7:30 in the Region 1-5A state quarterfinals.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” Catholic High senior quarterback Cody Henry said. “We’re not coming out like we’re 10-0. It’s the playoffs now, and if we lose one game, you’re gone.
“We know if we stick together and play our game, offensively and defensively, we won’t be stopped.”
Rickards (9-1) finished as the runnerup in quite possibly the toughest three-team district in the state, edging out Wakulla for the second-place position after Godby wrapped up the title by sweeeping both teams.
The Raiders, ranked No. 8 in the final regular season Class 5A poll, also have wins over playoff participants Lincoln, Choctawhatchee and Leon.
“Rickards brings in an extremely athletic group, led by their quarterback (Charlie Kelly),” Catholic coach Greg Seibert said. “Charlie does it all. He can single-handedly take a game over offensively, and he will be very, very difficult to deal with. He’s accompanied by a pretty good group of receivers.
“Defensively, they are sound and athletic. They know what they’re doing. (Coach) Quintin Lewis has done a great job in two years at Rickards.”
Kelly has been a matchup nightmare for all 10 of Rickards’ opponents this year. The 5-8, 190-pound senior has completed 116-of-197 passes for 1,844 yards and 23 touchdowns. He also leads the team in rushing with 731 yards and eight touchdowns on 102 carries.
“Again, the best player on the field is the quarterback, and he will have the ball in his hand on every snap,” Seibert said. “They are going to force us to make plays in space against a kid whoI don’t understand why he doesn’t have BCS offers because he is that caliber of player.
“The most dynamic quarterback we’ve faced this year is Dallas Davis of Rutherford, and the kid at Rickards is every bit as good, if not a lot better, than Davis. And Dallas Davis gave us a few fits.”
Seibert said the key to defending Kelly and the Rickards’ offense will be to remain patient and disciplined on defense.
“We’re going to have to be good in space,” Seibert said. “We’re going to have to do what we can to make them one dimensional by series. We have to try to get them into negative situations where we can dictate the play-calling.
“Offensively, we will have to stay the course. We will have to be patient. We will have to be efficient. We are going to have to do all of those things to keep the chains moving. That’s a hidden statistic that we’ve built as the year has gone on, and that’s time of possession. And I think we had the ball close to 35 minutes in the West Florida game.”