DADE CITY — They took a collective knee near the south end zone, got words of consolation from their coach and recited the Lord's prayer a final time. Then, a group of cheerleaders sent a strand of black balloons floating into the frigid sky.
With those helium-filled orbs went the dreams of the 2008 Pasco Pirates.
One of the most magical autumns Dade City has experienced ended Friday night, but not before overlapping into winter. The Pirates' 28-14 loss to Tallahassee Godby in the Class 3A state semifinals — before a packed W.F. Edwards Stadium audience — put a sobering end to a season even second-year coach Tom McHugh never imagined would last this long.
"These guys have hearts of champions," McHugh said. "There's nothing really else I can say. I didn't think they could do it. I think we overachieved just based on a team effort."
On a night when temperatures flirted with the high 30s, the overachievement darned near continued. Down 28-7 with just under 10 minutes to play, Pasco (12-2) scored three plays after a Cougars fumble to make it a two-touchdown game, and had first and goal at the Godby 4-yard line with 3:17 remaining, but failed to punch it in.
The outcome was sealed when linebacker Justin Jones batted away D.J. Clower's fourth-down pass into the end zone.
"We've exceeded everyone's limits they put on us," senior two-way lineman Zach Faza said. "And really that's a victory in and of itself."
Until Clower's final pass, Godby's self-destructiveness (three lost fumbles, two errant field-goal tries) and Pasco's defensive strategy had kept the Pirates' aspirations alive.
Against the most prolific passing attack they had encountered all season, the Pirates successfully clogged the secondary with nickel and dime packages, holding Godby (12-2) to 138 passing yards. In essence, Pasco dared Godby to run.
And the Cougars took them up on it. Behind junior Lavorie Johnson (24 carries, 149 yards), the Cougars ran effectively enough to give their passing game some breathing room, scoring twice in the first 2:06 of the fourth quarter to pull ahead 28-7.
Before that spurt, Godby had begun third-quarter drives on the Pasco 16 and 9, but failed to score either time. One 30-yard field goal try ended with a botched snap; another sailed wide right.
"We were our own worst enemy tonight from time to time," Godby coach Shelton Crews said. "We've seen a little bit of what they were doing earlier in the year, and we were just trying to take what they gave us. …You noticed we ran the ball more tonight than we've been running."
Pasco scored on its second possession of the night when junior Chaise Dunn got behind Godby's secondary and lunged for a 25-yard touchdown catch from Clower, but could muster little else until the fourth quarter. Pasco had only 58 first-half yards and failed to get a first down on the next five possessions after Dunn's touchdown.
Godby tied the score on Johnson's 8-yard touchdown run with 5:48 to play in the first half, then scored on the half's final play when FSU commitment Willie Downs — a distant cousin of Pirates senior Josh Johnson — took a direct snap and made a 1-yard scoring plunge.
Godby quarterback A.J. Graham, a 3,500-yard passer, managed only 103 aerial yards, but scored both of the Cougars' fourth-quarter touchdowns, including a 35-yard run two plays after a Pirates fumble that made it a 21-point game.
"We wanted him to run and that's what he did," McHugh said. "Sometimes you get a little blood in your eyes and you live by the blitz and you die by the blitz. … They did what they were told to do and it didn't work out for us tonight."