The blue-and-white flag they carried onto the field at John Kiker Memorial Stadium read, "Today, we play like champions."
Indeed, Wesley Chapel started Friday night's game against Bradenton Southeast with confidence and optimism, but it left the field disappointed and dejected, another strong season cut short by a humbling loss.
"This hurts bad, hurts deep down inside," senior linebacker Maurice Standifer said. "I feel like I played my heart out, and that's why it hurts so bad."
For 17 seniors, Friday's 40-20 loss marked the end of a four-year run that saw everything _ one win as freshmen, five as sophomores, an undefeated regular season as juniors, then an 8-3 mark in their final season.
For the second year in a row, the season ended sooner than Wesley Chapel had hoped.
"That's how it is sometimes," said senior fullback Tyrone Tomlin, who finished with 151 yards, including 95 of the Wildcats' 100 yards after halftime. "It's like last week, mental mistakes. We couldn't get them when we had the chance. We'd wouldn't make our blocks or something."
The Wildcats had a promising 14-0 lead after one quarter but were never able to keep Southeast's offense in check.
Seminoles quarterback Tyrance Griggs threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more, passing for a season-high 222 yards. His favorite target was elusive Rod Harper, who had eight catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns.
"It's tough for our team, and we've had some tough losses," said Wesley Chapel coach John Castelamare, whose three losses all came against teams that won playoff games Friday. "They had a chance here, but they knew it was going to be tough.
"I'm proud of our team. They did a good job this year. Everybody was better against us, wanted us bad."
The senior class led Wesley Chapel to where it now stands, among the county's elite programs.
Tomlin shined in his final high school game, scoring his 23rd touchdown of the season on a 47-yard burst up the middle. Greg Harrison had an interception, Jon Muhammad had a 65-yard touchdown catch and defensive tackle Derrick Gentles had a monster hit on a two-point conversion in the first half, keeping a 14-12 lead alive through halftime.
The seniors will move on, but Friday's loss did offer encouraging signs for next year.
Sophomore Anthony Rawson threw first-quarter touchdown passes to senior Jon Muhammad and junior Patrick Cushman. Junior Cory Filley forced and recovered a first-quarter fumble, setting up the Wildcats' second score. And the Wildcats' starting offensive line, which opened holes for the running game all season, will return intact next fall.
That's little consolation to the seniors, who entered this fall knowing the one way to improve on last year's 10-0 regular season was to win in the playoffs. On the road, against a perennial playoff powerhouse, the Wildcats fell short.
"Last game of high school," Tomlin said. "It's tough for everybody, even the (returning) line. They feel it too. I hope they do better next year."