SPRING HILL — Throughout preseason tryouts and conditioning, Frank Hynes, the football coach at Explorer K-8 School, would preach about how he wanted his players to feel the excitement of walking off the gridiron with victory in hand.
It was something neither he nor any of his players in the previous two seasons had experienced.
The Bobcats first began playing in 2008, when Explorer K-8 opened in Spring Hill, and Hynes, a former player at Hofstra University, was named the coach after a stint at J.D. Floyd K-8 School.
Along with athletic director Chris Ridenour, Hynes knew that building a football program would be an uphill battle, but never did he think that it would take 21/2 years for the team to notch its first win.
Parrott and Powell have been the dominant middle school teams in Hernando County for the past few years. However, even West Hernando, Challenger K-8 and Fox Chapel had found ways to defeat the listless Bobcats.
"It's been difficult, it really has," Ridenour said. "The biggest hurdle you have to overcome is kids' confidence. There are some that have been there since they were sixth-graders and have lost games 60-0. They get a stigma attached to them."
At first, 2010 seemed no different. While the roster included some talented young players, the emotional burden of playing for the winless program seemed more strenuous than anything. Getting over the hump would not be easy.
In its opener against Fox Chapel at Springstead High School, Explorer couldn't muster much offense and fell to the Tigers, 14-6. The six points scored against Fox Chapel was an offensive explosion compared to the next two games, as the Bobcats fell in consecutive shutouts to Challenger, 15-0, and Parrott, 30-0.
Despite the lopsided final score, the Parrott game is where Ridenour believes the team felt a momentum shift. Although they didn't make a dent on the scoreboard, he said, the Bobcats held their own in the first half, and the team felt like it belonged on the same field as the defending county champions.
"When it was 8-0 at halftime, our kids knew they could play with them," Ridenour said. "They were hanging with the best team in the county. (The Leopards) wore us out, but that first half was an emotional victory for us."
Explorer carried the positive feelings into the following week's rematch with Fox Chapel, and the results of this tussle with the Tigers couldn't have been more different than the first time around.
The Bobcats scored 28 points, while the defense almost held its opponent in check. Explorer tailback Robert Holdway (two touchdown runs and more than 100 yards rushing) was a force running the ball behind what had been a weak offensive line. On defense, linebacker Mike McDonald (three fumble recoveries) wreaked havoc all night in the backfield.
Both Holdway and McDonald are eighth-graders who have been on the squad for all three seasons. McDonald is a captain who started at quarterback the past two years, but switched to the defensive side of the ball this year. He has since become one of the best linebackers in the county.
The most important thing was that the Bobcats players, coaches, faculty and fans all experienced something on Oct. 12 they never had before — a 28-8 victory.
"It was an awesome feeling," Hynes said. "It was one of the best feelings I've had in my whole life. I've played ball all the way up through college, and my (father) coached for years, but I just felt so good for this group that they could move this team from basically nothing to where they are now."
And it's far from over. With four games left in this season, the coaching staff has the players' sights set on a possible winning campaign.
After that, the hope is that 2010 will become a springboard for 2011. Hynes knows that there is a lot to look forward to on the horizon.
"Confidence is a weird thing in sports," the coach said. "It becomes addictive. We have a great nucleus of players here that is seeing that hard work pays off, and our (junior varsity) team is loaded with talent."
If more success follows, everyone no doubt will look back to October 2010 as the point where the program was transformed from a group of also-rans to contenders.