Lecanto High quarterback Willis O'Steen wiped away tears after Friday night's football game. But not tears of sorrow.
Nor tears of pain, though O'Steen sat with his leg propped on a bench, ice packed around his ankle for an injury that forced coaches to carry the sophomore from the field with five minutes to play.
No, on Friday night, moments before an ambulance whisked him from the South Sumter High School stadium, O'Steen cried for joy.
Finally, the Panthers had won a game.
O'Steen was joined in his tearful celebration by teammates, coaches and an entire high school community that has waited nearly two years _ 17 straight games _ to raise its hands in victory.
With its stunning 16-8 upset over South Sumter, a team with valid hopes for the Class 3A, District 4 title before Friday night, Lecanto put an end to the routine counting of consecutive losses.
An end to being called losers.
"These young men, they should be very proud because of the adversities they had to overcome," said first- year coach Ron Cline, his shirt stained with dirt from embracing his weary players. "This is a game they'll never forget.
"I think, in a voice that's pretty
well trembling, this is a very moving victory for the players, and certainly Ron Cline, but for the players first."
The Panthers had every opportunity to fold against the bigger, faster and more talented team from South Sumter. And the Raiders, like everyone else in South Sumter's homecoming crowd, expected them to fold.
But they didn't.
Not when the 16-0 lead they had worked so hard for was cut in half, 16-8, in the final minute of the third quarter.
And not on South Sumter's three fourth-quarter possessions, each of which began in Lecanto territory.
Not even when the Raiders moved inside the Lecanto 10 yard line with less than 30 seconds to play.
All night, the Panthers stood their ground.
"I talked to the kids about getting rid of that look of uncertainty," Cline said. "And our kids came out and played physical, relentless football, to the point of near-exhaustion."
Yet, somehow, they found energy enough to celebrate. Raising a water cooler high over Cline's head, they poured its contents onto their coach.
A baptism of sorts.
The Panthers are starting life anew.