TAMPA — This particular Saturday couldn’t have been more sublime. The south Tampa sky was cloudless, the warm air bereft of humidity. It was a day for soccer, for sailing, heck, for scrap heap hauling.
It just wasn’t a day for the Durant Cougars.
On the season’s last afternoon, Hillsborough County’s resident over-achievers were overmatched. Unable to muster any kind of offense against a college-caliber backfield, the Cougars’ magical postseason run ended with a 4-0 loss to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in the Class 5A final.
Durant (16-8-2), a district runnerup that had to win three playoff games on the road to reach the state tournament, was seeking the school’s first team state crown in a boys sport.
“Every once in a while you run up against a team that’s just got better players than you,” Cougars coach Jamin Hollingsworth said. “No knock on the boys, we left it all on the field. St. Thomas Aquinas (19-4-2) was a fantastic team.”
How fantastic? Hollingsworth called converted Raiders midfielders Joel Eriksson and Alexander Marsh the two best outside backs he has seen at the prep level. He was equally complimentary of how defenders Nolan Bieck and Andre Fernandez neutralized 6-foot-6 Cougars forward Connor Bass.
“We couldn’t get the ball in midfield,” Hollingsworth said.
Aquinas senior Nicolas Serio provided all the scoring the Raiders needed in the 31st minute with a rebound shot from the right side of the penalty area. The goal was set up when Durant keeper Rafael Saldanha deflected Jesus Gonzalez’s shot in front of the net to Serio.
While that goal put the Cougars in a deficit, the next put them in deflation.
Eleven seconds into the second half, Gonzalez nailed a right-footed shot from 18 yards into the right corner of the net. Hollingsworth called the goal, originating with a Raiders rush down the left side, a “back breaker.”
“We weren’t really ready for that; it was really quick,” senior midfielder David Eisenhauer said.
“I was dropping back and our defense was a little bit stunned that they got there that fast. After that I think we tried to fight back, but getting scored on that early in the half will affect you a little bit.”
Raiders freshman John Miskel then sealed things in the 62nd minute with a 25-yard shot into the upper left corner of the net, all but clinching 74-year-old Aquinas coach Jobie Hughes his fifth state title.
Hollingsworth, by contrast, was trying to become one of only a handful of Hillsborough County coaches — in any sport — to lead his alma mater to a state championship.
“We beat teams on will for two weeks, so it’s got to come to an end some time,” Bass said. “We won with heart. I’m just happy to be around these guys. We weren’t better than a lot of teams we played recently but we outworked them.”