BROOKSVILLE – The calendar indicates Memorial Day is right around the corner.
Yet Friday night’s spring classic football tilt at the Bears’ Den against visiting Tavares closely resembled Flag Day.
Last spring, Tavares took advantage of the visiting Bears’ five turnovers (four interceptions and one lost fumble), plus 11 accepted penalties for a game-high 110 yards en route to a 41-12 pasting in Lake County.
This time, Tavares overcame three turnovers (two interceptions and one lost fumble) coupled with a game-high 185 yards on 18 accepted penalties to escape with a 35-22 win.
THS, which amassed a game-high 403 total offensive yards – including 326 rushing yards on 56 carries by eight different ball carriers – was led by junior scatback Ezekiel Thomas.
The 6-foot, 195-pound Thomas rushed for 145 yards on 12 carries featuring three rushing touchdowns (four, 20 and 40 yards) and a 9-yard touchdown reception from sophomore signal caller Ronnie Stonesifer.
Junior Nathan White added 93 yards on 13 carries attempting to atone for his one lost fumble.
The Dawgs’ other touchdown arrived courtesy of Derrick King Jr.’s 1-yard scamper in the third quarter capping an impressive 12-play, 70-yard scoring effort.
THS skipper Chris Gauntlett, who enters his third season at the helm, looked relieved afterward.
“Tonight was ugly. We graduated 17 seniors and we lost some pretty good cats,” admitted Gauntlett. “I think based on what happened last year, a few of our guys thought they had this. But it’s a different story when you’re a young team playing under the lights.
“We had a few blown coverages and we really played very vanilla coverages with the personnel we had,” he added. “All the mistakes we made, however, can be easily corrected.”
On his impression of Chris Sands’ 28-member Bears team, “Central had a huge improvement from the year before,” said Gauntlett. “This one was a nail-biter; it wasn’t easy at all.”
After scoring four touchdowns, THS’ Thomas admitted, “I didn’t play too bad. Central is alright. Tonight’s win was satisfactory in some points. We saw some good things.
“The biggest thing I take away from a game like this is just building momentum toward the fall.”
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Last fall, the 1-9 Bears (one victory was a belated forfeit nod over Poinciana) led all Hernando County teams with a minus-15 in the crucial turnover ratio.
That pattern continued against the Bulldogs as CHS suffered a game-high six turnovers (four lost fumbles and two interceptions), including five in a lively first half that left the Bears facing a 20-14 deficit.
Last season, CHS utilized six different signal callers, but on Friday a healthy Cody Brooks engineered three touchdown drives.
Brooks completed 10-of-30 passes through the air for a game-high 186 yards, connecting with five different receivers.
Amazingly, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Brooks completed as many passes against THS as he did in his entire injury-filled 2013 campaign.
Brooks, who didn’t connect on one scoring pass last season (the Bears as a whole threw 12 interceptions compared to zero touchdown passes) overcame two picks by clicking with Breon Wyatt for a 50-yard touchdown pass in the first half and throwing a 40-yard scoring strike to Emanuel Scott with 1:51 left in the game.
Scott’s one-handed grab on fourth-down-and-10 will certainly make the Bears’ early highlight reels.
Despite being sacked only once, Brooks’ evening was submarined by 5-6 dropped passes.
Of the Bears’ 353 total offensive yards, Brooks also led the team in rushing with 17 carries for 105 yards highlighted by a five-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter. He also added a pair of two-point conversions.
“I could’ve done a lot better,” pointed out Brooks. “I was anxious to get things rolling tonight.”
According to Brooks, “Little things killed us. And number 20 (Thomas) is a good player.”
As far as lessons learned, “I know I have to calm down when I’m in the pocket, so I can make better reads,” said Brooks.
Brooks praised Wyatt and Scott for two terrific touchdown receptions.
“On the pass to Breon, I put it out there perfectly,” he recalled. “I remember setting my feet and letting it go.”
“When Scott made his catch I was shocked,” said Brooks. “I asked myself ‘What just happened?’ That was such a tremendous catch.”
Despite the setback, Sands found a silver lining in the practice game, his first as Bears’ head coach.
“The biggest thing was we were close to winning,” he said. “We need some more tackling. We’ve got the summer to get better.”
Addressing his team’s biggest positives, “The kids are taking to our coaching,” he pointed out. “If the kids buy in, that’ll give us a chance.
“I thought Cody played a real tough game. He worked really hard.”
On where the Bears go from here, “We’ve got to get more players out,” noted Sands. “That was priority one when I got here. The lack of depth kills us. What did we have, 28 kids tonight and Tavares had 80; that’s what it seemed like. Maybe that made a difference in the second half.
“We want to be great, but we have to work to be great.”
Tavares 35, Central 22
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
TAV 13 7 15 0 -- 35
CEN 0 14 0 8 -- 22
TAV – Thomas 4 run (Meany kick blocked by Templar).
TAV – Thomas 25 run (Meany kick).
CEN – Wyatt 50 pass from Brooks (Brooks run).
TAV – Thomas 9 pass from Stonesifer (Meany kick).
CEN – Brooks 1 run (Brooks pass fails).
TAV – King 1 run (Tomson run).
TAV – Thomas 40 run (Meany kick).
CEN – Scott 40 pass from Brooks (Brooks run).
First Downs 13 15
Atts./Rushing Yds. 56-326 37-167
Comp./Pass Atts./Int. 5-11-2 10-33-2
Passing Yds. 77 186
Total Offense 67-403 70-353
Fumbles/Lost 3-1 4-4
Return Yards 2-28 5-55
Punts/Avg. 4-30.3 4-26.0
Penalties 18-185 7-78