GAME OF THE WEEK: North Fort Myers, Port Charlotte vie for playoff chance

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North Fort Myers running back Zaquandre White figures to be the center of attention for a Port Charlotte starting defensive unit that hasn’t allowed a point.

NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. — The season is only halfway through, but Friday night will feel like the postseason for Port Charlotte and North Fort Myers.

The coaches at both schools acknowledged the importance of this week’s District 6A-10 clash that will go a long way toward determining which team joins district favorite Charlotte in the playoffs come November. For the Red Knights, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2006, this one, set for 7:30 p.m. at Moody Field, may be even more meaningful.

“It’s probably one of the biggest games that we’ve had in terms of having the chance for our program to take the leap and actually contend to be in the playoff picture,” North Fort Myers coach Earnest Graham said.

North Fort Myers is 3-1 and 1-0 in the district this year after finishing last season 5-5 and 2-3. But the Red Knights played Port Charlotte tight in 2015 before falling 33-27 on the road, and this year, the Red Knights are at home.

Port Charlotte’s 4-1 district mark last year sent them to the postseason, and the Pirates haven’t skipped a beat so far this year. They crushed Cape Coral 56-0 in their only district game so far this fall, and they’ve outscored their opponents by a total of 151-14 en route to a 4-0 record.

But, until the FHSAA’s revamped playoff structure kicks in next year, it doesn’t mean much.

“The way the system is right now, district play is all that matters,” Port Charlotte coach Jordan Ingman said. “So, those wins won’t help us come Friday. It’s all about district play. Basically, the playoffs start for us on Friday.”

White to play, but ankle still a question mark

Zaquandre White
Zaquandre White

The key for Ingman and the Pirates will be slowing star North Fort Myers running back Zaquandre White, one of the jewels of Florida State’s 2017 recruiting class. A sprained left ankle in week 3 against Estero has helped limit White to an average of just 69 yards rushing per game this year, and he had just 51 yards on 11 carries last week against Mariner.

Graham said White won’t be 100 percent when he takes the field Friday, but Port Charlotte is preparing as though he’ll be in top form.

“We believe that they’ve limited his reps in order to get ready for district,” Ingman said. “So we’re expecting a healthy Zaquandre White on Friday night.”

Ingman said White presents a special challenge for a starting defensive unit that hasn’t been scored on this year.

“You don’t try to contain him with one guy,” Ingman said. “You have to tackle with four to five guys. You have to play team defense, gap-sound, very, very disciplined.”

That’s exactly what Ingman said his defense has done so far this year, led by outside linebacker Tiyan “Pop” Bush and nose guard Devin Leacock, who already has nine sacks this season.

“He’s one of the strongest kids in Southwest Florida,” Ingman said of Leacock. “In the weight room, he’s a grinder. He works his brains out. He’s a tremendous guy as well.”

Two QBs to play for North

White isn’t the only weapon North Fort Myers will deploy against Port Charlotte’s 3-4 front. Nick Perez will start at quarterback, but Ben Pogue, who missed the last three games with a concussion, will also take snaps.

“We’re fortunate right now, because we were kind of worried if Nick goes down what would happen,” Graham said. “So right now, we’ve got both of those guys, and they’re pushing each other for minutes out on the football field.”

North’s Hunter Kobylanski rushed for 111 yards against Mariner last week, and Red Knights defensive leader Fa’Najae Gotay has made his presence felt as a ball-carrier, too.

“He’s done very well running the ball,” Graham said of Gotay. “He’s a guy who just moves the chains. He’s a no-nonsense runner, just like he’s a no-nonsense linebacker. So, when he has the ball in his hands, he’s a very, very dangerous kid.”

Still, it’s on defense where Gotay does his best work. Graham said Gotay has changed the way the team practices because of his physicality, tenacity and leadership by example.

“When he makes a hit, it just does something for our team,” Graham said. When he’s closes in and makes a tackle for a loss, it just does something for our team.”

Balanced offense key for Port Charlotte

It’ll take more than just one man to stop a dynamic Port Charlotte offense that features four different backs who’ve totaled between 232 and 302 rushing yards this season.

“It’s all dictated based on what the defense is giving us,” Ingman said. “We don’t go into the game saying, ‘Hey, this guy’s going to get 40 carries,’ or so on.”

Quarterback Paul Barnes directs the read-based spread-option attack. He’s only 14-for-27 passing this year, but Graham is wary of what the Pirates can do through the air.

“Those guys are very explosive players they have,” Graham said. “It doesn’t take much for them to make a big play in the passing game. They’re so efficient running the ball. They do a job of getting downhill and throwing the ball over your head, so they do a lot of really good things.”

It’s a balanced approach that’s designed to keep opponents guessing, Ingman said. Port Charlotte defensive backs coach Tommy Hunter, once a teammate of North Fort Myers grad Deion Sanders at Florida State, is fond of reminding his players to turn their weaknesses into strengths, Ingman said.

For North Fort Myers and White, set to follow Sanders’ Red Knight-to-Seminole path, the task is to turn an also-ran into a playoff team. A win Friday will put them in position to do just that.

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