Today marks the 20th anniversary of Wharton High’s only appearance in a State Championship football game, when Southern Cal Hall of Famer and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Richard “Batman” Wood led the Wildcats to within a few points of immortality.
Sometimes, when he closes his eyes, Wilbur Joseph says he can still feel the cool air drying the sweat on his forehead, his teammates lined up next to him on the Wharton Stadium goal line, their bodies facing north.
“North,” head coach Richard Wood would say. “That’s where Tallahassee is. That’s where the State Championship game is played. That’s where we’re headed.”
Twenty years later, Joseph still gets chills. “The memory is still fresh,” he says, almost breathless. “Still vivid. Oh…man.”
In 2002, in just its fifth year of existence, the Wharton High football team did what no other Wildcats football team has done since, shocking Tampa Bay with an improbable run, all the way north, to Tallahassee.
In the Class 5A championship game that year at Doak Campbell Stadium, however, the plucky, scrap-iron Wildcats lost to Pompano Beach Ely 22-10, a heart-crushing loss to end a heartwarming season that no one on that team will ever forget.
“I told them, ‘You know, there’s 67 counties in the state of Florida, and here we are, one of the only teams who have made a championship game,” says Wood, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers star linebacker (1976-84) known as “Batman.” “And we’ve only been around a few years. Schools that have been here, in this state, for maybe 50, 60 years, haven’t been in this game. And, here we are. So, we can be proud. We can be proud that we (can say), ‘Hey, we did it!’”
Wood, now 69 and a defensive coach at Tampa Catholic High for the past decade, says those words probably didn’t mean as much to a team of heartbroken boys fighting back tears as they do today.
“I know it was tough,” Wood says, “because I cried my heart out, too.”
The 2002 Wildcats were, quite simply, special. They didn’t boast a bevy of Division I talent, they weren’t loaded with highly-rated transfers, and not a single player on the roster had even made the honorable mention All-County team the previous season.
But, they were flush with grit and determination, finishing with a 13-2 record.
“That was our first winning season in school history,” says wide receiver Michael Coonce, now an engineer living in Tampa. “Going into the season, we didn’t have any expectations around us. So, we rallied around each other, we took pride in shutting people up. We still talk about it today.”
Up to that point, Wharton’s biggest victories were moral ones for not getting blown out of games. The players were even made fun of in school.
Quarterback Ross Corcoran, one of four first-team All-County players from that team, says he remembers a teacher cutting a picture out of the sports section showing a disheveled Corcoran after being sacked for the fifth time in a game, and pasting it all over his desk.
But, in 2002, everything changed.
“Once we beat Armwood and Hillsborough that year, everyone jumped on the train,” says Corcoran, adding that people would walk up to him at the Publix on Cross Creek Blvd. to congratulate him after a win. “It was like ‘Friday Night Lights.’”
Corcoran, who no lives in Oldsmar and works in the mortgage industry, returned to Wharton to try his hand at coaching for a few years, but it wasn’t the same.
“I find myself thinking back to that year a lot,” he says. “I don’t want to be all Al Bundy about it, but you know.”
Bundy, the iconic sitcom father from the hit Fox-TV show “Married With Children,” could never stop bragging about scoring four touchdowns in the city championship game for the Polk High Panthers. But, Corcoran would rather talk about his teammates.
Tackles Joseph (1st team All-County) and Will Russell and center Jason Novisk (Honorable Mention) bulldozed defenses, while running backs Larry Edwards and Joe Hall (1st team) ran over them and Coonce (HM) ran around them as a top wideout.
The defensive line, anchored by nose tackle Kendric Morris, cleared the way for Edwards to wreak havoc from his linebacker position, where he had 14 sacks, was named Hillsborough County’s Defensive MVP by The Tampa Tribune, and earned a scholarship to the University of North Carolina, where he was named All-ACC.
Senior defensive backs Chris Wilson and Chris Ellick (both 2nd team) were ballhawks in the secondary. Defensively, the Wildcats were “insane,” Corcoran says.
“That was a true family,” says then-assistant coach David Mitchell, who later served as the Wharton head coach for more than a decade before retiring in 2020. “Coaches all say that, but this really was. There was really just a little something different about them.”
Wood, who was a defensive assistant while working as the Wharton school resource officer in 1997, took over the program after Dan Acosta was fired two games into the 1998 season. If there ever was a missing piece, it was Wood.
“When principal Mitch Muley offered me the job, I said, ‘Are you serious?,’” Wood recalls. “If I do it, it’s gonna be tough. I’m a Vince Lombardi guy. I was coached by John McKay (at USC). I’m old school.”
It turns out that Muley was serious, and Wood took the job and said, “Give me a few years.” The ‘Cats won two games in each of his first two seasons, then four games in 2001 before Wood was able to set his sights north.
Wood had 31 seniors in 2002, and he said it was just one of those magical combinations that come together, sometimes just once in a lifetime.
“You know, here you are, you have kids from the inner city, and then you have kids that live in the suburbs, and they treated each other like they were brothers,” Wood says. “You could see it all the time. They loved each other. And, all I wanted for them was to help them win.”
And, win they did, opening the season with a 37-6 victory over Robinson. Wharton lost just once, 10-7 to a Chamberlain team that played for the Class 5A State Championship the year before, but won their final six regular season games in dominant fashion.
“They don’t have any weaknesses,” coach Earl Garcia said at the time, prior to his Hillsborough team losing to the Wildcats 21-0 the night Wharton clinched its playoff spot.
After that game, Wood flew to Los Angeles to be inducted into the USC Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the L.A. Coliseum. For some of his players, it was the first time they found out their coach was the only three-time All-American in the storied history of the Trojans. “Coach was a real-life superhero,” Corcoran says. “He just didn’t walk around telling everyone.”
In the Class 5A playoff opener, Wharton had to travel to Melbourne because the ‘Cats were the district runner-up behind Chamberlain. Its season nearly ended 150 miles away, but Corcoran hit wide receiver Jovan Mitchell for a 27-yard touchdown with 8 minutes remaining. A pair of defensive stands secured the 14-13 win.
The next week, Wharton beat Durant 20-14, as Hall and Edwards both went over 100 yards rushing and Edwards scored with 5 minutes left.
After beating Lakeland 27-7 before 4,300 fans at Wharton Stadium, the Wildcats hosted the State Semifinal against Daytona Beach Mainland.
The 30-3 win still remains as the greatest game in Wharton football history.
Corcoran threw for 212 yards — 126 of those and a touchdown to Coonce —Edwards had four sacks and Hall returned a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown.
Wood fought back tears afterwards. He had played on television and in a Rose Bowl and NFL playoff games, but this game hit him like no other.
“This was the greatest game of our lives — the kids’ lives and my life,” he told reporters. “Truly, by far, the greatest.”
The Class 5A State Championship game was not as great. Wharton came out flat against Ely — losing two fumbles, throwing an interception and dropping a touchdown pass on its first five possessions — and fell behind 15-3 at halftime.
“I definitely don’t want to take anything away from them, they had two All American offensive linemen and an All-American running back, but playing in a stadium that big and kind of being out of routine and all the extra stuff around the game took us out of sync,” Coonce says. “It took us a quarter-plus to start playing right.”
Hall capped an 86-yard drive with a TD run on Wharton’s first possession of the second half, to make it 15-10. The three bus loads full of Wharton fans grew louder.
But, despite a strong defensive effort, Ely’s star running back, Tyrone Moss, broke free for a 55-yard TD with four minutes remaining for the winning score and with 210 yards rushing.
Corcoran, Joseph, Coonce and probably every Wildcat on that roster insists to this day that Wharton should have won that game. Take away a few miscues and some bad luck, and Wharton would — and should — have been crowned State champions.
Mitchell remembers coming home from Tallahassee the next day, grabbing the mail and flinging it across the room once he got inside. To this day, he has not watched a replay of the game.
Time, however, heals many wounds.
“That was the highlight of my life,” Joseph says. “I think about it all the time. I still see some of the guys I played with, and we always end up talking about it — the games, the bus rides. That was an amazing feeling. You felt like it was never going to end. It was like living in a fairy tale. In the moment, you don’t realize how significant it is. But, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”