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Playoff loss unleashes emotions

Tyrone Tomlin sat outside his locker, trying not to watch as the thick bandage was cut off his left knee, the red split in his flesh visible where the stitches had torn hours earlier.

Surrounded by the sullen, silent, teary-eyed faces of his teammates, minutes after Wesley Chapel High School lost its first playoff game in school history, 35-22, to Hardee High School of Wauchula County, Tomlin bowed his head.

And then he wept.

For those were the emotions Wesley Chapel's loss unleashed Friday night, as the team's remarkable three-year journey came to an end with its first and only loss this season.

"The game of football is an unbelievable game," head coach John Castelamare said. "To see the camaraderie those kids have, to see how those kids were hurting, especially the seniors, that's what it's all about.

"They love their game, and they loved what they did this season and they didn't like losing tonight. That's how important it was to them."

When this group first met three years ago, it was just a team of freshmen and sophomores, new to high school football. They took their lumps in that first season in 1999, going 1-9. In 2000 the team improved to 5-5. But it was this year the Wildcats enjoyed one of the best regular seasons in Pasco County history.

Wesley Chapel went an undefeated 10-0 for the first time in the school's three-year history, winning its first championships and earning its first playoff appearance.

Tomlin, the Wildcats' 6-foot, 190-pound star fullback, turned in one of the greatest performances in county history. His 1,731 rushing yards is a county single-season record, and he was ranked 13th in the state in rushing. His 34 touchdowns and 204 points led the state in scoring as well.

He was just one of many stars on this team. Nose guard Jason Boyd finished the regular season with a county-record 19 sacks. Spencer Honeycutt led the county with eight interceptions. As a team they were especially fearsome, averaging 41 points a game and giving up just 5.8 points per contest.

The team's mantra this season was "10-plus."

"It meant we wanted to get an 11th game," Castelamare said.

"Whether that was a bowl game or a playoff game or something. Our boys got to be 10-0, and that's pretty good. That 11th game meant we reached our goal."

But that 11th game also turned out to be the most painful of the season. So what happened Friday night?

Nine of Wesley Chapel's victories came against Pasco County teams, and many of those were blowout wins. That left the Wildcats unprepared for Hardee, a bigger and faster team that plays football in a tougher region of the state.

"We were worried about the line of scrimmage," Castelamare said. "They had 11 guys on defense and 11 guys on offense who played right until the whistle stops. That team is not going to go halfway on any play; they will play until the whistle blows, and that meant they were two steps two quick for us."

It didn't help that Tomlin was nursing an injured left knee, which he hurt in a severe auto accident recently. He also suffered a cut on the bottom of his left foot. During the game he tore the stitches in his knee, and those injuries kept him from running the ball with any kind of authority. He scored two touchdowns but was held to a season-low 29 yards on 10 carries.

Without Tomlin, his teammates played with little emotion or urgency during the game. At halftime it was tied 14-14, but Hardee scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter to take a commanding 35-14 lead.

Tomlin is a junior, so he'll be back next season. But seniors like Boyd had to come to terms with their last game as Wildcats.

"I don't know what to say," he said. "You lose and all of a sudden everything you worked for just kind of drops out of sight. It's all over. You don't know what's going to happen to you next year, you just don't know.

"I watched everyone on this team grow up together, as a family, and now it's all gone."

Actually, it just might be the beginning.

For in east Pasco County, as across the rest of the state, football is king. In Dade City and Lacoochee, residents there are brought together every fall at storied W.F. Edwards Stadium to watch Pasco High School's Pirates play.

Just down U.S. 301 are the Pirates' "9-Mile War" rivals, the Zephyrhills High Bulldogs. Along U.S. 41, it is Land O'Lakes High School's football program that draws crowds. In west Pasco County, it is neighborhood high school rivalries like Gulf-Hudson and Ridgewood-River Ridge that get the crowds flowing.

Wesley Chapel has had successful teams in its brief history _ the volleyball team won the school's first championship _ but it is football that holds the most promise to unify and define a community still searching for an identity.

More than 3,500 attended last week's Land O'Lakes-Wesley Chapel game, and more than 3,000 were in attendance for Friday night's playoff.

So perhaps it is Wesley Chapel High's football team that will bring together Wesley Chapel, a growing suburban community whose only shared traits seem to be a daily commute to Tampa and sitting in gridlocked traffic at the Interstate 75-State Road 54 intersection.

"It's getting there," Wesley Chapel High principal Andy Frelick said. "It needs a lot of things, but I think football is part of it. I think it has helped pull (the community) together."