For the first time in four years, the Venice football team’s path to a state championship will begin on the road.

After losing to Manatee, 30-13, on Oct. 25, the Indians lost the district, but finished as the top non-district winner in their region thanks to a brutally tough schedule.

Coming off a bye week, Venice (5-4) has the advantage of traveling roughly an hour south to take on team that had a losing record and the lowest RPI in the region in the Lehigh Lightning (4-5) in the regional quarterfinals.

But despite playing on the road, the Indians have the added motivation of overcoming the blowout loss to the Hurricanes.

“It definitely stung,” senior linebacker Zach Younts said of losing the district championship. “That’s the first time I’ve lost to Manatee. I think the whole season, our losses have pushed us farther and have brought us together as a team. Last week’s practice was great.”

Despite Lehigh’s unimpressive record, the Lightning feature an athletic team and a tough defense that came alive over the second half of the season. After opening 1-5, Lehigh has allowed just 12 total points across three blowout wins over Riverdale, Gulf Coast and East Lee County.

One of those athletic players the Lightning lean on is running back Richard Young — a freshman who’s already receiving interest from Power 5 schools. Young has run for 854 yards on 111 carries (7.7 yards per carry) and six touchdowns as he powered the Lehigh offense to its first district title in 14 years.

“We made some changes to our D-line and we’ve been hammering that,” said Younts of why the run defense will be better on Friday. “We’ve been working on tackling drills and I think we’ll do better at that this week.”

Young has demonstrated his big-play ability all season, including a 190-yard, 2 TD performance over Riverdale. Though he left last week’s win over East Lee County with a left ankle injury, coach James Chaney told The News-Press that he should be good to go for this week.

The freshman also has the benefit of running behind an offensive line that features three players over 6-foot-1 and four players 280 pounds or heavier.

Though the passing game of quarterback Duran Bundy has been inconsistent (31.6 percent completion rate with 4 TDs and 5 INTs), he has an explosive weapon at receiver in Tar’varish Dawson.

The 5-foot-11, 170 pound junior has caught half of the team’s completed passes (19 rec. for 293 yards and 3 TDs) as he’s shown a knack for breaking a game open. He’s also used in the running game as a complement to Young, rushing 22 times for 206 yards and three scores. And if that weren’t enough, the dynamic athlete also plays safety and leads the team with three interceptions.

“They’ve got a bunch of skill kids,” Venice coach John Peacock said. “They’ll probably win the state in track. So they’ve got a tremendous amount of speed on the field. We’re gonna try and win the physical part of the game and hopefully it falls in our favor.”

Though the Lightning defense doesn’t rely on turnovers (10 in nine games), they have players who can pressure the quarterback — resulting in 19 sacks this season. Outside linebacker Ahmere Dixon leads the team with 7 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. Also bringing pressure are Jake Chaney (86 tackles, 10 for loss) and Paul Barton (54 tackles, 9 for loss).

Lehigh has proven to be tougher than its record indicates, but beating the Lightning is a challenge that Peacock and the Indians think they’ve been prepared for after the rigors of one of the team’s toughest regular seasons in years.

“They’ve been resilient,” Peacock said of the Indians. “I think everyone believes we can make this right. I think everybody understands we’ve been dealt a lot of circumstances and adversity this year.

“We’ve had about every bad hand you can get this year, and hopefully it’ll start turning our way.”

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