By Jeff Odom
The Wharton football team will find itself in familiar territory when it travels to Orlando Dr. Phillips for the Class 8A regional quarterfinals.
The Wildcats (8-2) will meet the same team that ended their postseason run a year ago with a 35-7 defeat on the same field.
“We just got to come out hot, playing the best ball we can like we normally do,” said junior running back Jeff Keil. “This last half of the season, we just turned it up after the loss to Plant. We didn’t like how that felt, and we’re not going to let that happen again.”
Wharton lost 27-7 to Plant in Week 5, which gave the Panthers the 8A-District 6 title, but the Wildcats won five straight to end the regular season.
Even though Wharton has three more wins than it did last year, Dr. Phillips, a state finalist in 2010 before being forced to forfeit the entire season for recruiting violations, is undefeated and hungry for another trip to the Citrus Bowl.
The Wildcats are hungry too — for an upset.
“They’re undefeated?” joked junior quarterback Chase Litton. “Their defense is No. 1 in the state, hands down with players all over the field. Our receivers are going to have to step up and make plays. Our (offensive) line is going to have to click on all cylinders and everyone’s got to step up.”
Wharton has come to rely more on its passing attack this year after losing halfback Darius Page and his 1,385 yards and 13 touchdowns to graduation after last season.
Litton (2,079 yards, 18 touchdowns*) has found his main targets down field in seniors wide receivers Keith Hopkins (729 yards, six touchdowns) and Deon Sampson (417 yards, seven touchdowns) to make up for the loss. That, coupled with the late season rise of the explosive rushing ability of Keil (618 yards, seven touchdowns) and senior athlete Vernon Hargreaves (three touchdowns) in the wildcat offensive formation makes for one hard-to-contain threat.
“Whatever coach has us doing, we’re going to do it and come out and give 110 percent,” Hargreaves said. “(The wildcat) isn’t really our game plan. Our coaches don’t really like anything crazy, but we just have to try and come out and bust them in the mouth.”
Wildcats coach David Mitchell knows they’ll have to do more if they want to move on to the next round, and it starts with staying consistent.
“We really got to step up, execute and put some points on the board,” Mitchell said. “It’s the playoffs. Everybody is 0-0. … We’ve got the weapons. We’ve just got to be able to pull the trigger.”
Wharton’s regional quarterfinal at Dr. Phillips is Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m.
–Follow Jeff Odom on Twitter: @JOdomLaker
*All stats through nine games