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North Port & Tarpon Springs face off in much better circumstances from a year ago

Both the Bobcats and Spongers are independent teams that have improved immensely from the 2022 season
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TARPON SPRINGS, FLORIDA- 363 days ago, the North Port Bobcats and Tarpon Springs Spongers met in a regular season matchup that no one would bat an eye at. 

Battle of two teams that had been struggling all season long in 2022 and entered the matchup with a combined two wins, both belonging to Tarpon Springs. 

On Oct. 28th, 2022, Tarpon Springs would upend North Port 14-10 down in Sarasota County. It was a game that didn't tell the story of what the future for both programs would hold.

Fast forward just a shade under a year later and look at the two teams now. 

North Port, winless in 2022 at 0-7, head north into Pinellas County on Friday night with a 5-2 record and optimism surrounding the football program. Difficult as it is to be a football team about 20 to 25 minutes away from state powerhouse Venice, Bobcats head coach Garon Belser has found a way to create excitement in North Port. 

At the Suncoast Media Day at the University Town Center in Sarasota back in August, Belser spoke about the belief he had in his group of players. Now about three months later, his guys have fully bought in and they're reaping the benefits of a revived program enjoying its best season ever. 

The last time North Port had won more than three games was back in 2012 when the Bobcats finished 4-7. Four victories is the most the program has ever enjoyed and Friday night at Sponger Field, they'll have a chance to make it six. 

Belser has gotten solid play out of his backfield unit, including running back Zeke Baez, who has had multiple 100-yard plus performances this fall. Baez's top performance of the 2023 campaign ended up becoming a school-record as the back rushed for 282 yards in North Port's 38-20 victory over IMG Academy Blue. 

North Port won't be the only team touting some good running back play down by the Sponge Docks as Tarpon Springs has featured a dynamic backfield of Parkees Harris (961 yards), Geramyah Porter (565 yards) and Nikita Rinios (222 yards). 

Jeremy Frioud is in his second season back at his alma mater and things couldn't be going any better for the Spongers. 3-7 in 2022, Tarpon Springs has doubled its win total and sits at 6-1. The Spongers only loss of the season came at the hands of rival East Lake, 21-16. 

Though Tarpon Springs lost to East Lake, the score being respectable brought back memories and fans to what has always been a great rivalry. Around 4,000 fans attended the Spongers-Eagles matchup, which used to attract upwards of close to 10,000 spectators. 

Now with the Spongers off and running, the locals have begun to flock back to the stands and winning has certainly cured a lot. Just a couple seasons ago, the Spongers had player number issues, with less than 20 within the program. 

Those numbers have tripled and now Tarpon Springs is taking aim at winning seven games for the first time since 2014. 

Neither North Port or Tarpon Springs will get to qualify for a postseason, with both programs playing as independents. Belser and Frioud have found the formula to winning football and bringing excitement back to their respective teams. 

On Friday night in Tarpon Springs, each team will be able to step onto the field for a meaningful game in hopes of adding another win towards already successful seasons.

Regardless of the result or how the season ends, the Bobcats and Spongers can check off the 2023 season as a win in the record books for a job well done. 

Story correction: Tarpon Springs last made the playoffs in 2018 under George Kotis 

-- Andy Villamarzo | | @sblivefl