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When the school year started, it looked like this could be the biggest game in the country this year. But then something unexpected happened: Katy lost its first two games of the year, one of them in a blowout. The ESPN game was moved up from the original prime-time slot to Saturday afternoon. But for Cypress Bay, Katy's rough start meant they would be playing a team with something to prove.
In its final game before the Katy trip, Cypress Bay is as good as advertised. A crowd of soggy blue-and-gold-clad supporters packs the grandstands despite a heavy thunderstorm to watch the Lightning take on rival Western High School from Davie.
Cypress Bay is known for its running attack, and Coach Guandolo starts the game by calling 13 straight runs. Cypress Bay moves down the field easily. On a pitch-out play to the right, running back Jason Douglas turns the outside corner and streaks 25 yards before the first defender touches him. Cypress Bay eats up seven minutes on the 80-yard drive. Craig Dee caps it off with a five-yard plunge into the end zone.
Zach Green doesn't drop back for his first pass until there is less than three minutes to go in the second quarter. The tall, slim quarterback misses on his first attempt but eventually connects with Corey McCabe down the left sideline.
The Lightning looks inspired — perhaps motivated by vandalism of the home field. The night before the game, someone carved the letters WHS six inches into the turf across the middle of the field, then threw the dirt onto the home team's bleachers.
On defense, linebackers Phil Walker, Shane Gordon, and Austin Gamble help hold Western to just 16 yards rushing and two first downs in the first half. In the second quarter, Gamble wraps up a Western running back in the open field, lifts him off his feet, and drives him into the mud near the carved-out letters.
Cypress Bay Athletic Director Bill Caruso stalks the sidelines wearing jean shorts, tennis shoes, and a Harley-Davidson raincoat. With a walkie-talkie in either hand, he sloshes through the grass, in constant communication with the swarm of camera crews and student producers filming the game for Cypress Bay's own internet television station.
The school is no stranger to big business. Last year, MTV featured the school on The Paper, a reality show chronicling the melodrama of a high school newspaper. MTV wrote the school a check for $10,000.
Outback Steakhouse banners dot the fence around the football field, and every time the announcer mentions the game clock, Rolex gets a plug. It's the kind of place where the mothers collecting money in the parking lot don't hesitate to tell a stranger that his 10-year-old pickup truck is a "clunker." One Cypress Bay student wears a shirt declaring Western — from considerably less affluent Davie — "Trailer Bums."
The campus itself looks more like a bustling college or a military base, a web of pavement and colorful new buildings. It matches a city where the streets are each perfectly manicured, lined with evenly spaced, cropped palm trees and bright-green landscaping.
"Yeah, a lot of these kids are well-off," Caruso says, referring to the football players and the student body in general. "People think Weston, they think money, but a lot of parents aren't rich. They move here. They rent apartments here so their kids can have the chance to go to Cypress Bay."
Weston epitomizes the new era of high school football in South Florida. The top-ranked teams used to come from inner-city Miami or the rural sugar-cane towns south of Lake Okeechobee. Now, scouts flock to public schools like Cypress Bay and private ones including St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, which recently ranked third on ESPN's list of the top programs in the nation.
The biggest programs in Texas all come from wealthy suburbs as well: Austin Westlake, Southlake Carroll, Highland Park in Dallas, and Katy, which has appeared in the state championship game in seven of the past 11 years and has taken home four titles. KatyNation, a book chronicling the school's athletic dominance, is being turned into a movie.
Zach Green says he's seen Friday Night Lights and Varsity Blues. "I know how big high school football is in Texas," the quarterback says. "It's big here too. I know we're going against a good team, but we're confident we can take care of business and get the job done."
By halftime against Western, Cypress Bay has more than 300 yards rushing and a 28-0 lead. If there's any flaw in the dominant performance, it's the passing game. Green throws just five passes and completes only one, for 23 yards.
In the second half, Guandolo rests many of his starters, making sure they're fresh for Katy. Cypress Bay wins 35-3, with 468 total rushing yards. It was Guandolo's 200th career victory.
The Cypress Bay coaches begin the October 4 game against Katy with a surprise. They knew Katy would expect them to bring their dominant run game. So on the first play in Texas, Green, who had attempted just 18 passes all year, fakes a handoff and drops back to pass.