BROOKSVILLE – As a freshman at Springstead in 2013, T.J. Owens caught a glimpse of postseason play while the Eagles made a run to the Elite Eight.
On Friday night, now a senior at Nature Coast, Owens finally had the chance to deliver his own playoff magic. He carried the ball 22 times for 387 yards and scored four touchdowns, including two in the fourth quarter as the Sharks pulled away from visiting Zephyrhills to win a Class 5A, Region 2 quarterfinal, 35-21.
“It felt really great. I felt like I knew I was going to put up big numbers,” Owens said. “I’m hungry. I want it, so just put in work.
“I’ve got to thank the O-line for blocking. They opened up big holes. I just seen it and I hit it, and run.”
Nature Coast (10-0), having advanced to the regional final last year, was hosting the Bulldogs (8-3) in the first round for the second year in a row. This one, though, was a bit more competitive than the 42-13 drubbing in 2015.
It didn’t appear that way early, though. Zephyrhills drove down to the Nature Coast 10-yard line on the game’s opening drive, only for the Sharks to get the ball when Augustus Carwell II recovered a fumble.
Though an interception by Mikhael Morrell cut short Nature Coast’s first possession deep in Bulldogs’ territory, the Sharks came right back on their next drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by Owens. A missed point-after try left it 6-0 at 2:53 in the first quarter.
Owens added a 58-yard dash to the end zone less than a minute into the second, with quarterback Brian Haygood tacking on two points. Gilbert Delgado took a Haygood pass 57 yards to the house, upping the lead to 20-0 as 6:52 remained in the half.
Tre’pavis Mobley finally got Zephyrhills on the scoreboard on a 5-yard touchdown with 2:32 remaining before halftime. Then with 39 seconds left, Jarrett Black picked off a pass and returned it 62 yards for a score.
Suddenly it was a one-score game at 20-14, which held until 6:37 to go in the fourth quarter when Owens went up the middle for a 27-yard touchdown.
Mobley’s second score, on a 2-yard scamper, made it 28-21 with 4:22 to play, but less than a minute later Owens broke off a 53-yard sprint to pay dirt.
The last chance for the Bulldogs ended with a turnover on downs on fourth down from the Sharks’ 6 with 52 seconds left. Then Owens tacked on a 63-yard run to cap an impressive performance.
“He can go, man,” Nature Coast head coach Justin Worden said of Owens. “First half we started off pretty good, found some stuff that worked. Then they kind of took it away, and it took us two more quarters before we made the right adjustments. But we made the right adjustments there and found the holes there late.”
Delgado was also a big playmaker for the Sharks on the night, adding a sack and an interception to go along with his touchdown. Yet Nature Coast did show some cracks defensively that need to be addressed moving forward. Elijah Thomas rushed for 119 yards on 19 carries, while Mobley caught six passes for 118 yards.
Next Friday the Sharks travel to River Ridge in another rematch from last postseason. Nature Coast captured the 2015 semifinal meeting, 42-33.
“Hopefully (Friday’s close game) wakes us up some,” Worden said. “The thing with the playoffs is every week you’re going to face someone better, ideally. Hopefully it’ll be a wake-up call. We’ve got to be sharper, especially on the defensive side of the ball.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.