By Jeff Odom
Make every play; finish every snap.
That is the message Wharton football coach David Mitchell wants his players to live up to throughout the 2012 season.
The Wildcats didn’t have the start they envisioned last season, sputtering to a 1-4 record by Week 6. But after a 37-19 loss to 2011 Class 8A state champion Plant, they came together and won four games in a row to make the playoffs.
“We (have to) start off with camaraderie — everybody all on the same page, know their assignments, be more disciplined,” Mitchell said. “As far as a team, we all know our roles; as athletes, we just have to be ahead of the curve because we were behind the curve last year.”
The biggest hole for Wharton comes at running back. Last year, Darius Page ran for 1,385 yards on 205 carries and 13 touchdowns while adding 452 yards from 29 catches and another two scores.
The Wildcats trying to replace the 5-foot-8, 195-pound Page, who signed with Methodist University in North Carolina, are Jeff Keil and Deon Sampson. The duo combined for 156 yards on 29 carries and four scores last year while kicking in 19 catches for another 351 yards.
Wharton does returns plenty of power with highly recruited quarterback Chase Litton, inside linebacker Rocky Enos and Vernon Hargreaves.
Hargreaves, a senior, is rated as the No. 1 defensive back in the country by ESPN. He said it’s time to get back to business.
“I’m excited, just happy to be back out here,” said Hargreaves, who finished with 49 tackles in 2011 and committed to University of Florida this offseason. “We’ve got a good squad coming back out here with most of the same players, but we’re working hard and I think we’ll get back to the playoffs.”
Litton, who finished with 2,056 passing yards and 10 touchdowns, said the team gained a lot of chemistry in the offseason with 7-on-7 tournaments and workouts. The junior said his team can end Plant’s run atop Class 8A-District 6.
“We expect it,” Litton said. “We’re not just going to roll over. We’ve got to expect to beat them and come in to the game confident, not cocky, but just knowing that we can play with them. We can’t just turn over.”
The Wildcats have made the postseason three of the last four years, but Litton said they can’t get complacent and expect the playoffs to just happen.
“We can’t just sit there and be like ‘Oh, we’re Wharton,’” Litton said. “We had a good spring practice. We have a bunch of great athletes coming out, but we can’t expect greatness. We’ve got to go out there and win. We can’t lose close games. We’ve got to beat King, turnaround and beat Sickles. We have to have a winning record going into Plant to give us some confidence against them.”
Mitchell said the offseason tournaments provided a learning experience for the players and hopes that development will continue into the regular season.
“We learned from them, and if we learn from that then carry it over to the season, we’ll be okay,” Mitchell said. “Each guy is different. The quarterback has to learn his timing, receivers have to learn how to adjust to their routes, so it’s a lot of learning, but we’ll see how it carries over.”
Hargreaves agreed and said he is trying to preach to the younger players on the squad that the regular season is where it matters the most.
“Gotta be ready; it’s coming fast,” Hargreaves said. “I’m trying to tell all of the (new players) you think these (practice) days are long days, but next thing you know it’s Friday. Coaches are giving us a little more responsibility, and our leaders are taking care of the players, and I think that will bring us all together.”
All games start at 7:30 p.m. Home games played at 20150 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., New Tampa.
Kickoff classic Aug. 24 vs. Riverview
Sept. 1 at King
Sept. 7 vs. Sickles
Sept. 14 at Chamberlain
Sept. 21 Bye
Sept. 28 vs. Durant
Oct. 5 vs. Plant*
Oct. 12 at Freedom
Oct. 19 at Bloomingdale*
Oct. 26 at Blake
Nov. 2 vs. Alonso*
Nov. 9 vs. Spoto
*Denotes district contest
2011 Wildcats (5-6)
King L 14-6
Sickles L 38-21
Chamberlain W 20-17
Durant L 41-21
Plant L 37-19
Freedom W 28-7
Bloomingdale W 49-24
Blake W 18-6
Alonso W 44-21
Spoto L 35-28
Orlando Dr. Phillips* L 35-14