DADE CITY — The morning after Pasco's football season ended one win shy of reaching the Class 3A state title game, coach Tom McHugh hoped his players knew one thing: He always believed in them.
McHugh never presumed upon taking the job in January 2007 that his team would be in the final four so fast; just two seasons and just the second team to do it in North Suncoast history (the other being Pasco's 1992 state title team).
As McHugh prepared each week, he always believed his plans would work and his team would win regardless of the opponent's size, speed or strength.
Conversations overheard in the parking lot at W.F. Edwards Stadium after Friday's 28-14 loss to Tallahassee Godby confirmed a common thought: Pasco could have won.
In two seasons, McHugh has an overall record of 18-6 (16-3 in the past 19 games) in his first job as a varsity head coach. He has guided Pasco to two district titles and the 2008 Sunshine Athletic Conference title.
The only North Suncoast program to defeat the Pirates (12-2) was Nature Coast in an 18-17 win that came via a gutsy fourth-quarter, two-point conversion by Sharks running back Tevin Drake. Had it not been for a fumble on the Pirates' ensuing possession deep in Nature Coast territory, many believe Pasco had the kicker in Brennan Allen (who had made a 53-yarder that night) to win that game, too.
The Pirates played in five games decided by two or fewer points and won four of them. And when they had a second crack at Gulf after defeating the Buccaneers 21-20 in the regular season to determine the district and conference champion, the Pirates made a loud statement, crushing them 50-0 in the playoffs.
Pasco's success came via a dominant defense, and McHugh was its mastermind. Pasco shut out three teams and held six foes to seven or fewer points. Tim Saylor, Mark Christmas, Jarrod Carmody and Dominique Wilson are just some of the Pirates who carried out McHugh's plans with vigor. Despite allowing more than 20 points for the first time all season in the last game, the defense kept the Pirates in that one, too.
It was clear in July during a seven-on-seven passing league that Pasco had all the facets for a potent offense. The Pirates were led by quarterback D.J. Clower, had a solid runner in Jamall Haynes and plenty of playmakers in Josh Johnson, Chaise Dunn and Hakeeme Ishmar.
In all, Pasco will lose 20 seniors — many of them among the names above. But it's clear Pasco has its swagger back.
McHugh has instilled discipline and confidence in a locker room devoid of it just two years ago, and by treating boys like men he caused them to realize their potential.
Izzy Gould can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-5315.