TAMPA — As the season progressed, one thing Tampa Catholic never lacked was confidence. The Crusaders didn’t question their ability to make it to the program’s first state championship game.
But with every yard gained by Jacksonville Trinity Christian in the second half of Friday night’s 20-11 Class 3A semifinal loss, the Tampa Catholic sideline grew quieter, and the Crusaders’ heads sunk lower.
Tampa Catholic went into halftime ahead by four after a 30-yard field goal by Michael Sarafianos, a 1-yard touchdown run from quarterback Kyle Ploucher and a two-point conversion run by Ben Reed.
But the Crusaders had just 18 yards of offense in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the Conquerors rushed for 159 of their 283 total rushing yards and scored two touchdowns.
A 49-yard run from Jalin Buie early in the second half set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Gage Morrell. With 2:59 left in the third quarter, Chris Barr took off for a 67-yard touchdown.
The Crusaders began the final period of its season with three straight incomplete passes from Ploucher.
T.J. Harrell, noticing his team’s desperation, took off on a 38-yard dash toward the end zone. His legs heavy, Harrell was tripped up 15 yards short of the goal line. The Crusaders then saw Sarafianos miss a 27-yard field goal attempt.
“Heads got down,” Harrell said. “I tried to pick them up on the run, but we didn’t capitalize on it, so they went back down.”
And down they remained.
Trinity Christian, though it didn’t score, sustained a lengthy drive as the minutes ticked off, and the Crusaders got the ball back with less than two minutes to go.
With 1:36 on the clock, Ploucher ran for 13 yards and a first down on fourth and 10, but he took a hard hit at midfield and laid motionless for several seconds on the ground.
Coach Mike Gregory called for the stretcher but Ploucher, unwilling to be carted off the field in his last game as a Crusader, shooed it away.
“All he said was: ‘Let me walk off. Let me walk off.’ We almost didn’t let him,” Gregory said. “He’s a warrior.”
Ploucher, who had 105 passing yards, left the game and did not return.
Later in the same drive an illegal hit call against the Trinity defense helped to move the ball as far as the 15-yard line for another chance at the end zone in the final seconds.
But just like their state title goals, the pass fell incomplete.
As the Crusaders huddled on the field with the Conquerors celebrating their state championship berth against Clearwater Central Catholic right behind them, coaches tried to ease the disappointed players’ minds.
“Nobody expected you to get this far,” someone said.
Everyone else might not have expected it. But the Crusaders themselves guaranteed that, and more.
“The closer you are,” Gregory said, “the more it hurts.”