VALRICO — The clock quickly moved toward zero. The numbers flashing on the scoreboard at Brandon High were no mirage:
Bloomingdale 27, Brandon 22.
Some players doused Bloomingdale coach Jason Stokes with Gatorade.
From the front row, Angela Spillis screamed for the team.
"Ohmigod!" she yelled.
Down on the field, the players jumped, bumped chests, gave each other high-fives and sprayed silly string.
The Bulls had clinched their first winning football season in the school's 22-year history, as well as a spot in the playoffs.
• • •
Some teams might call going 6-4 — the worst the Bulls can do after Friday's win — a garden-variety season. For Bloomingdale, it's the Garden of Eden.
"I can't be prouder of our school," said Bloomingdale principal Mark West. "After years of toiling and working, they're started to believe in themselves."
"This is a huge turning point in Bloomingdale football history," said Terry Varvil, 33, a math professor at Hillsborough Community College. Varvil played defensive end for the Bulls from 1989-1992, when the Bulls managed no better than 5-5.
"We got recognized for playing hard," Varvil said. "We just never could turn the corner."
Erin Andrews, a former Bloomingdale cheerleader and ESPN reporter, learned about the win after spending last Friday night with her parents in Brandon.
"I opened up the paper and said, 'Holy crap! Bloomingdale beat Brandon," said Andrews, who graduated from the school in 1996.
"The football games I saw were social events," said Andrews, 30. "That was the meeting place before you went out Friday nights."
"It was humiliating," said "team mom" Bernice Rach, a volunteer. "The boys were being told, 'The only reason we go to games is to hear the band because you guys (stink).' "
• • •
The team has many players who returned from last year, when the Bulls went 2-8. That prompts a question: What happened?
"The coaching," answered Chris Diemer, a junior defensive end. Several of his teammates supplied the same answer.
After the departure of Corey Brinson last year, the school searched nationwide for a head coaching replacement. About 50 people applied for the job, but the school selected Jason Stokes, then an assistant coach for Riverview High.
Stokes had played linebacker at Lehigh University before a career as a Wall Street stock trader. He was faced with a career change in 2003. His employer, Goldman Sachs, had merged with an Australian firm. Stokes took a severance package, sold his home in Queens and moved his family to Riverview.
"It was quite a pay cut," said Stokes, 33. "But I got a good deal on a house, the cost of living is better here and, as the old saying goes, you can't buy happiness."
Even so, he wanted a head coaching job. At Bloomingdale, Stokes was eager to check out his new team. "The reputation was that the kids were soft and they didn't want to work hard," he said.
"When I saw how hungry they were, I told them, 'Get ready to work.' "
• • •
Under Stokes' leadership, the team and its supporters decided to change virtually everything. They fixed the scoreboard, and got a field painter to keep the lines white and sharp. They even found a smoke machine to use during their entrance at home games.
"Everything that hadn't been done in 20 years got done this year," said Rach. Behind the scenes, Stokes organized pizza parties and handed out T-shirts for the practice player of the week.
He instituted two "accountability brothers" for each player, who monitor each other on everything from grades to compliance with team rules.
At a recent practice, Stokes stood on a blocking sled and urged his defensive linemen.
"You guys have got to start hating blockers," Stokes said. "They're in your way."
The players did their best to drive his sled into the air. "Come with some bad intentions, baby!" he screamed. "Bad intentions!"
• • •
The Bulls nearly lost their chance to make history against Brandon.
They lost their lead in the third quarter, prompting several hundred Bloomingdale fans to start yelling at the top of their lungs.
"Dee-fense," stomp, stomp. "Dee-fense," stomp stomp.
The bleachers shook, as fans frantically waved cowbells in the air.
Although some of the fans were nervous, losing was not an option for Angela and John Spillis, whose son, Peter, plays for the Bulls. Angela had wanted a shutout. Now, they were just hoping for a win.
From the back of the stands, another football mom shifted from foot to foot. Randy Stokes couldn't take her eyes off her son, the head coach.
"We couldn't be more proud of him," she said.
The Bulls quelled her anxieties in the fourth quarter when Brandon's punter fumbled on a botched play. Bloomingdale's Jason Miller scooped up the fumble and ran 4 yards into the end zone.
As players celebrated on the field after the game, Diemer walked around with a large grin and wide eyes.
"I can't even explain how it feels," he said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or [email protected]