Gateway is heading back to the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, thanks to a wild 55-48 at Mount Dora last week.
The Panthers (5-5) are the No. 8 seed in Region 8A-2 and face the daunting task of going to top-seed Vero Beach (10-0).
“They’re the real deal,” GHS Coach Marlin Roberts said. “We saw them in a summer camp. They’re strong, big, athletic and have all kinds of tradition of being where they are. We’ll just have to slow the game down and play keep away from their offense.
“Can we get it done? We’ll see. Our kids have been defying expectations all year.”
The Indians favor a passing attack on the arm of senior quarterback Nick Celidonio, who’s thrown for 2,418 yards and 24 touchdowns against just five interceptions this year. The go-to guy is senior Demarcus Harris (56 catches, 1,342 yards, 13 TDs) but four receivers have caught at least 22 balls.
The Panthers needed the win Friday in Mount Dora just to sneak into the playoffs, and looked to be well on their way. They held a 27-14 halftime lead on the strength of three Tyler Tyrell first-have touchdowns, and were still up 41-28 through three quarters.
But Mount Dora wrapped touchdowns around an onside kick, tying the game at 48 before Panther junior Phillip Bangura scored with 1:45 left to put Gateway back on top. The Hurricanes still had a chance at the end, but safety Ken Normil batted down a pass in the end zone.
“The third-quarter lull has been a problem for us, but we have a group of seniors who decided not to let it happen again,” Roberts said, “They wanted to go out winners and get to the playoffs. It was a crazy night.”
Gateway’s first-ever playoff game was a 50-14 loss at Vero Beach in 2015. It lost last year at Sarasota Riverview.