TARPON SPRINGS — A pair of big plays staked visiting Tampa Catholic out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead and the Crusaders never looked back, beating Tarpon Springs 27-3.
Quarterback Kyle Ploucher hit Justin Matlow over the middle on the game's second play and the senior receiver turned it into a 61-yard touchdown. Running back Ben Reed doubled the lead to 14-0 about 5 minutes later with a 65-yard burst through the left side.
Tampa Catholic (2-1) entered this week averaging just 57 yards rushing per game, but exploded Thursday for 223. Reed led the charge with 143 yards and the score.
Tarpon Springs' offense – playing without injured quarterback Jarrett Battyanyi – struggled to move the ball all night. The Spongers rushed for 324 and 363 yards, respectively, in its first two games, but Thursday was a different story.
Backup quarterback Brandon Casler went 4 of 12 for 39 yards while filling in for Battyanyi. But with Tarpon Springs presenting a limited threat to throw the ball while also playing a much more competitive opponent, the Spongers and star running back Michael Ford (16 carries for 67 yards) were limited to just 103 total rushing yards and 142 overall.
The Spongers (2-1) managed to avoid the shutout by capping a 12-play, 74-yard drive with Louis Zervos' 31-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter.
Despite the tough first loss of the year, Tarpon Springs coach Ron Hawn said that he hopes his team will be better prepared for quality competition later in the season after having faced the likes of Tampa Catholic.
“We put those guys on the schedule so we can get ready for district play,” he said. “That is the level of football that we want to get to. We're not there yet, so it's going to take a little time. But our kids need to see that. They need to see what great high school football looks like.”
The Spongers get into Class 5A District 8 play beginning next Friday with a trip to Dunedin. The Falcons fell to 1-2 on the year with a 48-0 loss at East Lake on Thursday night.
Ploucher went 8 of 13 for 164 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while also finding the end zone with a 14-yard run in the second quarter. The senior hit Matlow four times for 105 yards and the first score.
Tampa Catholic's fourth and final touchdown of the night came when Ploucher hit Jake Romp racing down the seam for a 26-yarder.
The Spongers struggled to deal with Tampa Catholic's first-half scheme, Hawn said, but adjusted well out of the locker room. By that time, though, they were already in a 20-0 hole.
“That first half they lined up unbalanced and we didn't pick it up,” he said. “I think we played really good defense in the second half. We made some adjustments and they couldn't hit the same plays.”
Tarpon Springs received a big night defensively from Maurice Turner. The defensive back pulled down two interceptions, including one he returned 47 yards to midfield.
Outside linebacker Damarkus Jones recorded the Spongers' lone sack of the game and fellow linebacker Leonel Hernandez was around the ball all night.
The home team also felt Battyanyi's absence on defense, Hawn said. The senior is its regular starter at strong safety.
“Not that we didn't miss him on offense, obviously we did, but the place where we really missed him was on defense. He's also a big part of quarterbacking the defense.”
The Spongers' lone opportunity in Tampa Catholic territory during the first half came in the final minutes of the second quarter and was set up by punter Louis Zervos. The strong-legged junior pinned the Crusaders at their own 3 and Tarpon Springs' defense stepped up by forcing a three-and-out.
The Spongers took over at midfield with 1:35 remaining, got a first down after two Ford runs, but failed to get into field-goal range.
TC - 13 – 7 – 0 – 7 --- 27
TS - 0 – 0 – 0 – 3 --- 3
TC – Motlow 61-yard pass from Ploucher. PAT kick (Serafianos) – 1st Quarter (10:58)
TC – Reed 65-yard run. PAT kick failed – 1st Quarter (5:31)
TC – Ploucher 14-yard run. PAT kick (Serafianos) – 2nd Quarter (4:27)
TC – Romp 26-yard pass from Ploucher. PAT kick (Serafianos) – 4th Quarter (3:31)
TS – Zervos 31-yard FG. – 4th Quarter (5:18)
TC – Reed (12-143, TD), Vertino (9-55), Ploucher (7-22, TD).
TS – Ford (16-67), Miller (12-37).
TC – Ploucher (8-13 for 164, 2 TD, INT).
TS – Casler (4-12 for 39).
TC – Motlow (4-105, TD), Romp (1-26, TD).
TS – Turner (2-41).