If you’re looking for a powerhouse matchup between two of the best high school football teams in the area, the Nov. 8 game between the Wiregrass Ranch Bulls and the Wesley Chapel Wildcats probably isn’t it.
Neither team will be going to the playoffs, both are winless in their respective districts, and they have a combined three victories between them (all of them from 3-6 Wiregrass Ranch, while Wesley Chapel sits at 0-9).
So why are both schools looking forward to the match up?
The answer is simple: It’s a rivalry game. And it’s a game among neighbors as well.
The two schools are only about 10 miles apart. In fact, Wiregrass Ranch was created in part due to Wesley Chapel’s overcrowding.
A decade ago, current Bulls students would likely have been Wildcats. They live near each other, interact with each other, and many players participated in youth sports together. So when they face off in a high school rivalry game, the athletes don’t consider it just another date on the schedule.
“These guys have seen each other for a number of years, so it’s always special,” Wesley Chapel head coach Tico Hernandez said. This is Hernandez’s first year running the school’s program, but he understands the pride that goes along with defeating a rival.
But for the Wildcats, there’s also history on the line. Wiregrass and Wesley Chapel have been playing against each other since the 2007 season, and each time Wesley Chapel has come out on top. But this year the Bulls own the better record and some confidence that they can not only beat the Wildcats, but beat them on their own field.
Hernandez said to avoid that outcome and keep his school’s streak going, the Wildcats will have to have one of their better defensive efforts and get more consistency from an offense that can create effective moments, but is also susceptible to what he calls “silly” plays. He believes that putting a complete game together and getting the season’s first win against a rival would be meaningful for the players.
But Wiregrass Ranch head coach Mike Lawrence doesn’t want to hear much about rivalries. He just wants to win.
“Focusing just because it’s Wesley Chapel and a rivalry, I don’t want to play too much into that. I just want to focus on winning the ballgame,” he said.
Lawrence knows his players could get excited about facing the Wildcats, but sees a better road to success by keeping the Bulls focused on their game plan and treating the contest like another game on the schedule. That means both offense and defense prepared for the game, and playing well when they’re on the field.
Like Hernandez, this is Lawrence’s first season as his school’s head coach. But instead of the rivalry aspect of the game, he’s more concerned about Wesley Chapel’s winless record, and their drive to get into the win column for the first time this year.
“They’re hungry and they’re looking for a win. They haven’t won a ballgame yet, and that’s an advantage that they have right now on us,” he said. “They don’t want to finish their season without a victory.”
While that’s true, Hernandez said there’s a little bit more behind their motivation when they see the Wildcats on the schedule. They want a win, but they also want neighborhood bragging rights as well.
“Our team goals at the beginning of the year were to control the classroom and behave on campus and have a certain GPA,” he said. “And one of our other goals was to continue to own Wesley Chapel.”
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