GREENCOVESPRINGS - Football at Clay High School has a bit of a hometown aura, a hometown advantage or a 12th man if you want, but the Lady Blue Devils’ flag football team earned the right to be a …
GREENCOVESPRINGS - Football at Clay High School has a bit of a hometown aura, a hometown advantage or a 12th man if you want, but the Lady Blue Devils’ flag football team earned the right to be a part of that long-time tradition with a 14-13 region championship over the number one team in the state; Choctawhatchee High, with just 13 seconds left on the clock.
“I told the girls before the game that this field has a bit of magic in it with some our last second football wins that have put us into the football Final Fours,” said Clay flags coach John Stilianou, a long-time defensive coordinator for the Blue Devil boys football team, now the defensive guru for his daughter Alexis’ girls flag football team that is now headed to Boca Raton High School to be in the Final Four tournament with a shot at a first-ever state Class 1A title. Clay will first play defending Class 1 champion Tampa Robinson, who defeated Brandon 33-0 in their region final. Glades Central beat Daytona Beach Seabreeze 27-6 in their region final and will face 1A runnerup Miami Edison, who beat Monsignor Pace 13-0 in their region final.”We made a lot of adjustments in the game because they are a great team and made their own adjustments. This team just never quit and they believed in themselves.”
Clay, still unbeaten at 11-0, with a recent 21-0 region semifinal win over Terry Parker, did not push their vaunted Ciara Zino to Lea Plante passing game against the much-taller Choctawhatchee defense, but instead, offensive coordinator Jared Moses, chipped away at the corners to move the ball downfield.
“When they wouldn’t give us downfield passing, we had to figure a way to get around the center of their defense,” said Moses, also a former offensive coach for the Clay High football team. “Ciara has become a great read quarterback for us.”
In the final minutes of the fourth quarter, with Choctaw tying the game behind senior quarterback Kassandra Fairly’s flying plunge into the end zone with 3:23 left in the fourth quarter that put Choctaw up 13-7. An incomplete pass on the point after play would be prophetic.
“We lost to them by a point last year and it was a missed extra point,” said wideout Alexis Stilianou, who caught a 25 yard post pattern pass play to set up the winning scores for Clay. “We have thought about that night for a year wanting to come back here and change the score.”
After Choctaw’s go-ahead score, Zino took control under Moses’ playcalling to move the ball quickly downfield with passes to Abby Hawkins and Skye Paradise getting the ball past midfield as the clock ticked into the two minute mark.
“We knew and they knew we had to go downfield to get the ball close enough to score, so we kept the passes toward the sideline to stop the clock,” said Moses.
A flag on Zino for throwing a pass over the line of scrimmage and a sack left the Blue Devils with a precarious fourth down play about three yards from a first down.
Trigger wideout Lea Plante, who has carried the Blue Devil offense with her catch and run plays throughout the season. Plante caught a crossing pattern just over three yards to give Zino another set of downs to paydirt.
“That’s what seniors do,” said Stilianou. “Knowing where the line was to keep the drive going was big.”
From there, Zino went big to Stilianou who knifed between three Choctaw defenders to snatch a post pattern pass and find green grass toward the Choctaw bench before a defensive crowd corraled her. Stilianou, also a senior, deftly lateraled to Hawkins for an additional six yards to put the Clay offense at the six yard line.
“We are coached to keep looking for opportunity and to always try to create opportunity,” said Stilianou, who, with punt cover teammate Lynette Quinones, pinned a Plante punt two yards from the Choctaw goal line to set up the short field for Clay’s final drive.’
“A little thing like covering a punt correctly turns into a huge play,” said Stilianou, who cited Quinones and Hannah Agee, both defensive rushers, with pressuring Choctaw’s offense, mainly Fairly, to hurry their play selection and execution. Agee, on the previous Choctaw offensive series, was nearly knocked out on a skull-clunking collision with Fairly on a key play deep inside the Choctaw side of the field and left the field to ensure concussion safety.
From the six, with 14.6 seconds on the clock, Zino swept right, looking for an end zone pass, but finding a seam to dive into the end zone for the tying score.
“I felt the presence of many great plays on that field,” said Zino. “It was surreal.”
On the ensuing PAT play, the decider for overtime or a bus trip, Zino rolled left, again looked for an end zone pass, but buried between two defenders for the gamewinning point.
Stilianou’s final stroke of defensive wizardry was installing speedy Ariana Bellamy in at defensive rusher instead of the woozy Agee with Bellamy rifling in and slashing Fairly for the final play of the night.