SIDELINE SCENE: Knights trending in right direction with four games to play
| 10:51 a.m. October 16, 2014
OCOEE — In the roughly five minutes it took West Orange to go up 35-0 over Cypress Creek, I found some time between Warrior touchdowns to check Twitter on my phone.
The plan all along had been to start the night at West Orange, what with the Homecoming festivities and all, and then move over to Ocoee. But, standing on the sideline at Raymond Screws Field in Winter Garden, I quickly realized I was really in the wrong place.
The Knights, improbably, had an early 10-0 lead over the Pioneers — the No. 10 in the state in Class 7A.
As luck would have it, I got to Ocoee High School at halftime — after Oak Ridge had gone on a 22-point swing and taken the lead. It was a lead the Pioneers would not relinquish, as the score at halftime would be the final score.
A loss is a loss, and awarding moral victories is tricky, but the way the Knights played against a team that, by most accounts, was expected to win pretty handedly, is undeniably encouraging. In fact, if you take a good look at what Ocoee has done the past three weeks — a win over Lake Howell, a last-second loss to East River and holding its own against the Pioneers — there is a palpable difference in the way this team is carrying itself from the beginning of the season, when it went scoreless for three and a half games.
“I like the fact that I feel like it was more our mistakes that cost us a chance to win a game against the No. 10 team in the state (in Class 7A), rather than them just beating us,” Knights coach Dale Salapa said. “We’re starting to match up, match intensity, match hitting — match everything with them. It was just some of their athleticism and broken plays that make the difference for them.”
The truth is, Ocoee had several chances in the second half to score and make it a one-possession game. They didn’t, and there certainly are some problems the Knights have to sort out on the offensive side of the ball, but there are also some evident positives.
After a rocky start, first-year defensive coordinator Jerry Middleton’s defense has really hit its stride. Ocoee held Oak Ridge — with all of its playmakers — scoreless for three out of four quarters and, in the past three games, has allowed just 15 points per contest.
That’s down from the 39.3 points per game the Knights allowed through their first three games.
What’s changed is how the team is approaching what it does, Salapa says. Ocoee is light on seniors and heavy on inexperienced underclassmen, but the Knights’ youngsters are growing as the season progresses and making it clear they didn’t like the way it felt being blown out in their first three games.
“There was a time here that it seemed like the coaches had to do all the motivating,” Salapa said. “The team, right now, is becoming accountable to themselves. … It’s unprecedented for me, being in my third year, the level of accountability they’re holding each other to and how much work we’re doing after practice to get better.”
Ocoee has four games left. They are not eliminated from the playoffs, but they would need to win out in their three remaining district games to have a shot.
Considering how well the Knights have played of late, all three games could be considered winnable.
The Winter Springs Bears are 2-4 overall and 2-1 in district play, but their offense struggles to score points. Wekiva is the frontrunner for the runner-up spot behind Oak Ridge but hasn’t been so impressive as to rule Ocoee completely out in that contest — especially with the way the Knights held their own with the Pioneers. East Ridge is having a down year, and Ocoee should win that game.
The Knights finish the season hosting West Orange, a long shot against a team that likely will be preparing to host its first-round playoff game.
So, when you look at it, there’s a very good chance Ocoee could finish with a 2-2 record down the stretch, possibly even 3-1.This team, for all its shortcomings early in the season, at least has the possibility of sneaking into the playoffs.
However they finish, this is a young team that is, at the very least, heading in the right direction.