By Kyle LoJacono
The Freedom flag football team reached the District 12 championship game against state runner-up Alonso on April 26, but lost to the Ravens 19-0.
In any other high school sport the Patriots (9-1) would have moved on as the district runner-up, but in flag football only the district champion continues in the playoffs. Unfortunately for Freedom it was the first, and only, loss this year.
“It was still definitely a great season,” said Patriots coach Dennis Derflinger. “You want to go out and win the district championship so you can continue to play, especially for the seniors. Alonso is a great team and they proved it. They shut us down with a good defensive scheme. They were the better team tonight.”
Freedom defeated Alonso (11-1) earlier this season 27-21, giving the Patriots the No. 1 seed in the district tournament. In that loss, Ravens coach Matt Hernandez discovered the key to defeating the Patriots — keep the ball away from senior Briahanna Jackson.
“We wanted the rematch, but we knew it wouldn’t be easy with a player like Jackson on the other side,” Hernandez said. “In the first game, she had two interceptions on defense and did whatever she wanted on offense. We needed to make sure she couldn’t get the ball on defense and didn’t have time on offense.”
Alonso put pressure on Jackson while she was playing quarterback, forcing her out of the pocket. She managed to complete eight of 18 passes for 58 yards, four to senior Lindsay Taggart for 35 yards.
On offense, the Ravens relied on short passes to keep the ball away from Jackson, who plays defensive back. Alonso quarterback Carlee North attempted only two passes of at least ten yards all night. One was tipped and nearly picked off by Jackson in the first quarter. Jackson came up with the interception on the second attempt in the fourth quarter.
“They just kept it underneath and tried to get pitches off that to run the option,” Derflinger said. “They’ve scouted us a number of games and knew that Bri was over the top. She’s pretty aggressive when the ball is in the air and she made some plays the few times they went down the field. They just kept the ball away from her.”
Jackson transferred to Freedom from Wiregrass Ranch just a few weeks before the flag football season started. She last played the sport as a young child and is mainly a basketball player.
“She has a lot of athleticism and can change a game with one play,” Derflinger said of Jackson. “She didn’t get a lot of opportunities today, so that was tough for us.”
Freedom took its semifinals contest April 25 against fourth seeded Wharton 39-0 to make the finals. Jackson had four touchdown passes in the win. Alonso, the two seed, took down Gaither in the other semifinals 47-0.
Besides only one team advancing in the playoffs, another difference between flag football and other high school sports is only the top four teams in each district even make the district tournament.
The Cowboys (4-5) have made districts every year since Hillsborough County started offering flag football as an official sport in 2006. Freedom is the only other District 12 program that can make that same claim.
“Our district is usually pretty strong,” Derflinger said. “There are always a couple teams who step up and surprise you. It’s just great to be able to compete against a team like Alonso the last two years because it makes you get better as players and as a coach.”