LARGO — They were in tears a year ago, players locked in the misery of a loss in the Class 5A state football semifinals.
The Largo Packers had done all the right things last season, going undefeated in the regular season for the first time in 30 years, sending running back Brynn Harvey on a supernova ride to stardom, getting the state semifinal game on their home field.
But Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas crushed Largo's state title hopes 35-13.
As the Largo players headed toward the locker room, they looked back at the field and realized their season was gone.
"It was hard for all of us to take," fullback/linebacker Sean Holte said. "We were emotional. But we all said in the locker room that we were going to be back."
The seeds for a rematch were sown on that field, in what is starting to become a familiar spot in the playoffs.
Tonight, Largo (12-1) travels to St. Thomas Aquinas (13-0) in the Class 5A state semifinals. Again, the Packers will try to reach their first state title game.
Again, the Raiders stand in the way.
St. Thomas Aquinas, the defending state champion, has won 22 straight games dating to last season and recently moved to the No. 1 in national rankings by USA Today and Rivals.com. The Raiders are seeking their fourth state title, their first undefeated.
"We know St. Thomas Aquinas is going to be our biggest test by far," Packers receiver Mike Lang said after last week's 59-17 win over Punta Gorda Charlotte.
The Raiders' path to perfection, it turns out, began at an imperfect moment in last year's game against Largo.
The Packers led 13-0 late in the second quarter. Then the Raiders scored right before the half. Then they scored again after the half. Then the Packers started cramping, mostly from starters playing both ways.
After that, the rout was on.
"We felt like we had that game in our hands," Holte said. "Then we had guys start cramping and things got away from us."
The loss devastated the Packers, but also gave birth to an internal battle cry — unfinished business — that has infused nearly every moment since and put them on the cusp of a state title appearance.
And Largo has taken solace knowing the Raiders needed nearly every one of those 48 minutes to defeat it last year.
With a burst of confidence borne of three playoff home victories, Largo is pursuing respect as surely as St. Thomas Aquinas is pursuing immortality. The Packers are heavy underdogs tonight. If they win, it will be one of the greatest upsets in prep playoff history.
"We know it's going to be tough," Holte said. "Everyone is saying we're going to get blown out.
"But we're motivated."