The Lecanto High soccer players struggled through tears to keep their heads up after Friday night's 2-1 overtime loss to Tampa-Berkeley Prep in the Class 2A, District 8 tournament finals.
After more than 109 minutes of play _ 80 minutes of regulation plus 29 more in overtime _ merely pushing the state's second-ranked Class 2A team wasn't enough.
When Berkeley Prep's John Edwards converted a penalty shot in the final minute of sudden death overtime, satisfaction was not foremost in the Panthers' minds.
But head coach Kevin Towne drove the point home.
"Keep those heads up," Towne yelled to his players as they straggled off the field. "There's nothing to be ashamed of. I want to see those heads up."
After all, it was Lecanto's seasonlong goal to earn a first-ever spot in the district finals. And along the way the Panthers set a school record for most wins in a season and won the Gulf Coast Conference title.
Towne, not unlike a proud papa, sees Lecanto's entire season, right down to the penalty kick that ended it, as a huge success.
"I think it does a lot for Lecanto," Towne said of playing well in the district final. "We'll be there someday. It's just going to take time. The foundation is there; now we've got to build on it."
Lecanto took a 1-0 lead 38 minutes into the contest when Mike Boldt's free kick found the goal. Berkeley Prep goalie Matt Hill, it appeared, was distracted by the presence of Lecanto's Brian Bova in the goal crease, and Boldt's kick rolled into the net. The lead stood until halftime.
But the second half brought heartache for the Panthers.
First, Berkeley Prep's Robert Borham deflected a shot past Lecanto goalie Mark Mohrmann, tying the game with 20 minutes, 34 seconds left in regulation.
Then, moments later, Lecanto's Rick Worthington was injured and removed from the field by ambulance. Word spread that he had broken his right leg in a collision with a Buccaneer.
Still, Lecanto fought. Towne called for his players to play with their hearts. And they did.
Still tied at 1-1 in the match's 100th minute, the two teams were seconds away from deciding the title with a penalty kick shootout when a Lecanto defender tripped Edwards in the box, resulting in the penalty kick.
"They gave everything they had," said Towne, whose request for a package of Tums to settle his stomach was answered after the first five-minute sudden-death period. "I just hope someone opens their eyes and gives us some credit."
Credit as in a place among the state's top 10 Class 2A teams. Towne, discouraged that his team was not recognized during the season, knew Friday's match against second-ranked Berkeley Prep would be a chance for the Panthers to prove their worth.
And they did.
"I give a lot of credit to Kevin for getting them ready to play, and a lot of credit to Lecanto for playing us tough, and even tougher after what happened to (Worthington)," said Berkeley Prep coach Dave Zimmerman.
The Buccaneers celebrated the school's first district title in the soccer program's 30-year history.
But three times prior, Berkeley Prep settled for runner-up honors _ in 1978, '88 and '89 _ and holding their heads high through tears.