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TAMPA — They strolled around midfield one last time, reluctantly and disbelievingly soaking in the bitter aftermath of the last home game of their careers.
The others, they consoled.
“We scored 32 points,” first-year coach Matt Kitchie told the Falcons, “and it wasn’t enough.”
Not on a night when Strawberry Crest scored 37, giving the winless Chargers a victory and leaving Leto hurting for one.
When it ended, Kitchie buried his face his hands. Rested his chin on his hand. Stared blankly ahead, searching for the words.
They don’t come easily in a season where you have lost all eight games you’ve played, the first seven by embarrassing margins and this one by a painfully close one.
You just watch, as seniors Garrick Pimienta, Lamar Pinkney, Rafael Serra, Robert Asphall and junior Lyucchi Jansen clasp hands, lower their reddened eyes and in a wall of solidarity, walk off the field for the final time.
So darned close.
“This one,” Kitchie said, “is especially hard. I wanted to see these kids walk off with a win. I wanted them to feel that pride that winning gives you. It’s just hard.”
The Falcons recovered two onside kicks Thursday night, converted a fake punt, returned a kick for a score, survived a handful of fumbles, but it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.
“Maybe if I had given just a little more effort,” said quarterback Michael Serra, his voice trailing off.
But Serra was being unfairly hard on himself.
He’s a linebacker. He stepped in when the Falcons had no one else to play quarterback. He played his heart out, that was obvious, because as he walked toward the locker room you could tell he had left it somewhere on the field behind him, in pieces.
“It’s rough,” he said, “but this is what it is.”
This is how 0-7 teams become 0-8 teams become 0-10 teams:
They return kicks for scores — like Francisco Salcedo did to open the game and give Leto its first lead of the season — then can’t hold on.
They recover an onside kick and score on a 24-yard run by senior Alex Smith, to start the second half, then force a fumble on a vicious hit by Jansen, and score again for their second lead of the season, then surrender it via a 97-yard kick return to Karel Hamilton.
They kick a field goal to take their third lead of the season, recover another onside kick, stretch that lead to 32-23 on Michael Serra’s touchdown run, and give up another kick return touchdown to Hamilton.
Then they punt the ball away, the Chargers take that lead back 37-32, and it stays that way.
This game was billed as each team’s final chance to win this year, but Serra didn’t see it that way. His team may be losing, but he said he refuses to be defeated.
“I look at every game like it’s a chance to win,” he said, because he still thinks if he can give just a little more effort, try just a little bit harder, reach just a little bit further …
“You did good, Mikey,” they said as he disappeared into his waiting family, who touched his face and slapped his shoulder pads and clapped for him.