ALACHUA – Last Thursday and Friday were the two biggest days thus far of what has been a breakout season for the Santa Fe High School football team.
On Thursday, the Raiders blasted Eastside, 42-0 in a crucial District 5-5A battle at Raider Field.
Senior running back Brandon Willis led the way with 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 13 attempts as Santa Fe defeated the Rams for the first time since 2003.
That victory gave Santa Fe an 8-1 overall record and a 4-1 mark in district play.
However, North Marion's 9-3 district-win over Dunnellon on Friday night was just as big. While the Colts claimed the district championship, the win also clinched the runner-up spot for the Raiders, and with it, their first regional-playoff berth since 2004.
"Our major preseason goal was to get in the playoffs," Santa Fe coach Tommy Keeler said. "I was at the North Marion-Dunnellon game and it was nerve racking because I didn't want a tiebreaker.
"It was a relief for me. We're excited."
A Dunnellon win over North Marion would have forced a tiebreaker with Santa Fe this past Monday. Instead, the Raiders will travel to Dade City Pasco for a Class 5A, Region 2 quarterfinal on Friday, Nov. 18.
Without a win over Eastside on Thursday night, the biggest two days in the last seven years of the Santa Fe football program would not have occurred.
The Raiders got off to a fast start as Willis ripped off a 46-yard scoring run on the game's fourth play from scrimmage to give the home team a 7-0 first-quarter edge.
Senior linebacker Deriyal Owens then made the first of his two big defensive plays in the second quarter. At the 6:31 mark, Eastside had a bad snap deep in its own territory. Owens secured the loose ball and trotted into the end zone from two yards away.
Verntario Jenkins then intercepted Eastside starting quarterback Sir Jackson, which set up Tray Presley's 56-yard touchdown run as Santa Fe enjoyed a 21-0 cushion at halftime.
Santa Fe's defense, which held the Rams (3-6, 2-3) to 175 yards of total offense, put the game out of reach early in the third quarter.
Jenkins picked off a pass from Eastside backup quarterback Tervasius Johnson and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown just 12 seconds into the period. On Eastside's third play from scrimmage to open the half, Johnson fumbled. Owens covered up the loose ball in the end zone at the 10:59 mark for the 35-0 advantage.
Willis put the finishing touches on the senior-night win and provided the final margin with a four-yard scoring run as the third quarter expired.
"Our kids got real fired up tonight," Keeler said. "Our defense was all over the place, offensively we controlled the ball and we just played really well tonight all the way across the board."
Presley finished with 90 yards and the touchdown on eight carries for the Raiders, who ran for 267 yards as a team.
Steven Glover rushed for 92 yards on 24 carries to lead the Rams, who were shut out for the fourth time this season.
Jackson did not play in the second half with a foot injury, according to Rams coach Jeff Parker.
"This is a huge win for the team, the school and it gives a little bit of pride back to Alachua," said Keeler, who was drenched from the water cooler shower he received after the win. "Everything kind of clicked for us tonight."
This Friday, Santa Fe travels to rival Fort White (6-3) for the annual "Battle for the Paddle" matchup. The Raiders will look to end their six-game losing streak to the Indians.
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