PLANT CITY — The Durant High boy's soccer team was a respectable but unspectacular 11-6-1 last year. The Cougars made it to the district semifinals before falling to Sarasota Riverview in double overtime.
This year's club, however, has been as tough as nails. The Cougars carry a 25-2 record into tonight's 6A region final against nationally ranked Melbourne.
So with nearly the same players as 2007-08, what's behind the dramatic turnaround?
"That loss to Sarasota Riverview really stuck with this team," Durant coach Jamin Hollingsworth said. "It was a real motivator."
Durant seemed to be in control and on the verge of heading back to the postseason last year against the Rams. But with less than two minutes remaining, the Cougars were whistled for a foul in the box that resulted in a penalty kick. Hollingsworth called it "a questionable call" but the kick was converted and the Rams went on to win in the second overtime.
"It was a tough way to lose," sweeper Freeman Bass said. "That's all we've been thinking about since."
And when the Cougars weren't thinking about it? Hollingsworth was reminding them.
"I've used that game as motivation a number of times this year," Hollingsworth said. "And I know it's been on our guys' minds. Probably from that next day on, this team has used that game as motivation for what they've accomplished this season."
And what the Cougars have accomplished this year has been historic. Durant, with its 1-0 victory against Mitchell on Tuesday in the region semifinals, extended the school record for wins to 25. Tonight's tilt with Melbourne, ranked No. 44 in the most recent ESPN RISE Fab 50, also matches the farthest Durant has ever gone in the postseason.
"This is a special group of seniors that has been working toward one goal," Hollingsworth said. "They've put in the work, haven't really had any bad games and have the motivation to keep playing a couple more."
Those seniors, most notably the entire back line — Jarrett Williams, Andy Nassar, Micah Garcia and Bass on defense — have buoyed Durant all year.
"Having that experience back there is huge," Hollingsworth said.
With their starting defense — including Freeman's brother Connor at keeper — the Cougars have surrendered just 21 goals in 27 matches. They haven't allowed more than two goals in any match and are unscored upon dating back to the district semifinals.
"Freeman is really the key because of his size (6-foot-3), the way he reads the game and his understanding of angles," Hollingsworth said. "Jarrett played the last two years at forward for us so he is excellent with the ball at his feet and in his ability to push forward when needed."
But Durant is far from a one-trick pony. The Cougars feature one of the best striking tandems around in Billy Fanning and senior Cecil Clarke. The explosive duo allow the Cougars' midfield to check back more and get involved on defense.
"Teams can't man mark one because the other will be beat you," Hollingsworth said. "Cecil can break you down off the dribble and Billy has one of the best left-footed shots around in high school."
And while all the accolades have been nice, the Cougars need to look no further than last season's final match as reminder that there is unfinished business.
"We've been working towards this since the end of last year," Bass said. "Now all we have to do is win a few more."