TAMPA — While simmering over a heartbreaking loss for a lengthy period of time is frowned upon in most high school football programs, the past definitely motivates Carrollwood Day School. At least for Friday's Class 2A, District 5 opener against Indian Rocks Christian.
Nearly a year ago, a harrowing 8-point loss to IRC on a rain-soaked September evening ended the Patriots’ hopes of a second straight district championship.
Coach Lane McLaughlin recalls it vividly.
His team trailed 14-6 late in the fourth quarter, but the offense looked to be putting together a tying scoring drive.
With four minutes to play, quarterback Taylor King connected on a long pass to Mike Smith, who shook off a defender and raced down the sideline.
A few yards before the goal line, Smith was hit and fumbled. The ball rolled through the back of the end zone for a touchback.
Carrollwood Day never threatened to score again.
Weeks later, IRC clinched the district title by one game and went on to host three playoff games, including its first appearance in a state semifinal. Carrollwood Day finished as the runner-up and lost in the first round against Naples First Baptist Academy.
McLaughlin, the only coach in the program’s eight-year history, said that night has turned into a learning experience for his 23 players. One he hopes will translate into a better result this time around.
“You’ve got to be ready out of the gate,” said McLaughlin, who moved tonight’s game from Carrollwood Day’s on-campus field, which does not have lights, to Skyway Park to give it a primetime effect.
“We’re excited about playing in it, and we’ve been thinking about it all year.”
McLaughlin’s enthusiasm has carried over to his players.
Senior running backs Elias Earley and Willie Parker are eager to outperform IRC’s offense, which includes three potential 1,000-yard rushers — senior Damian King and juniors Theo Anderson and Zeke McGaughy.
Parker had 1,019 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns last season. The two-star recruit said he considers King one of the best backs in the area but is confident he can be contained.
“He’s a great athlete and a cool kid, too,” Parker said. “Everybody works hard and I have to understand that I have to work hardest to be the best. Understanding and knowing how many great athletes (IRC has), I have faith in my team that we’ll be able to stop them.”
Earley, who scored the Patriots’ lone touchdown in last year’s game, said despite the fact that this game could have playoff implications going forward, he doesn’t believe there is any additional pressure.
“We take all of our opponents as serious as possible,” he said. “We don’t mess around. Obviously this game is a district game and the first (district) game of the season. It’s going to be a challenge. They’re a heck of a team. But we have some athletes of our own, too.”
With that confidence, Earley believes that his team will come away with a victory and get its revenge.
And if history is any indication, maybe a district championship as well.
“We circle this game as our biggest game of the year,” Earley said. “Playing them early in the season and with this game potentially determining who’s going to win the district championship is exciting. It’s exhilarating. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”