Coach Damon Zassenbraker gets a victory dousing after the Longhorns’ third straight Pasco County championship. (Photos courtesy of Valerie Sercu/Celebrate Everything Photography)

John Long Middle School football coach Damon Zassenbraker has an unusual approach to kicking the ball off during games.

He doesn’t.

Instead, he orders onsides kicks, where the ball needs to only travel 10 yards before the Longhorns can recover it, unless the receiving team beats them to the ball, which they usually don’t.

After 23 straight wins, including a third consecutive Pasco County middle school championship on Oct. 28, it’s hard to argue with his strategy.

The Longhorns defeated local rival Weightman 35-6 to cement themselves as an official dynasty in Pasco’s middle school ranks. Behind two touchdowns apiece from quarterback Isiah Williams and running back Gavin Zassenbraker and, of course, some key recoveries of onsides kicks, the Longhorns capped off another undefeated season.

“It feels good, I’m happy for the kids,” said Zassenbraker, a world history teacher at Long and the head football coach for two different stints totalling six years. “We give them a game plan, and they go out and execute it. It’s wonderful to get to this point again.”

The Longhorns were able to attack the outside edges with success against Weightman. Williams, who improved throughout the year, scored the first touchdown around the right end, as Gavin Zassenbraker sealed the edge with a block to clear the way for the 40-yard score, and then Zassenbraker followed that up with his first touchdown, covering 24 yards on an inside run.

Weightman struggled with the Longhorns’ offense all evening. Coach Zassenbraker described his offense formations as a combination of the stuff the University of Oregon and Auburn University run, and it produced early results that put Weightman on its heels.

Kicker Cameron Canard was a key offensive weapon in the championship victory.

Long’s kicker Cameron Canard’s amazing ability to make his onsides kicks hard to recover was more than enough to provide the cushion the rest of the way. Williams and Jayden Ramos recovered two onsides kicks, and with Weightman playing up to defend against it later in the game, Canard — who acquired his kicking skill playing soccer — kicked one deeper that his teammates recovered.

Those kicks limited Weightman to only four offensive possessions in the game.

“Cameron has an amazing ability to make the ball bounce just right, it’s unreal,” Zassenbraker said. “I think we had to recover at least two every game.”

Doesn’t that peeve the other coaches?

“Oh, absolutely,” Zassenbraker said with a chuckle.

Ironically, Weightman’s only score came when Gacanica Armani grabbed one of the onsides kicks and ran it back the other way for a touchdown.

Canard’s foot saved Long’s season at least once this year.

Trailing Pine View Middle 12-6, the Longhorns scored on a great catch by Jaden Ramos in the left corner of the end zone to tie it up with a little over a minute remaining. Canard’s extra point made it 13-12, and then his onsides kick was recovered to seal the win.

Opponents only scored 24 points against Long this season, and only 12 of those were against the Longhorns’ defense. The other 12 were scored on onsides kick returns for TDs.

Can the Longhorns make it four straight? Zassenbraker isn’t sure. Because of school rezoning, he will lose a large number of his players to the new Cypress Creek Middle School. But, he says he can’t wait to try again.

“It’s always satisfying to see the smile on the kids’ faces,” he said. “I always tell ‘em no matter what, they’ll always be my boys.”

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