Tonight is not the end.
It is the beginning.
Tonight, in late November, two Pasco County teams will play for the right to advance to the region finals. No county team has been there since the 1992 Pasco Pirates did it on their state title run.
But then no teams have worked as hard to reach this far into the postseason as the Land O'Lakes Gators and the Zephyrhills Bulldogs have.
There is no magic to what these two teams have accomplished. No special potion, no secret formula. They wanted. They believed. They worked. They made it happen. They didn't listen to the nay-sayers. They didn't accept mediocrity. They didn't think, for one second, that it couldn't be done.
They went out and did it _ and now it is critical that county coaches and players do not forget how it was done.
For years now in Pasco County football had fallen by the wayside. Cross country. Volleyball. Basketball. Baseball. Softball. Those were the sports where the county had a shot at state glory. Football? Forget it. Remember when the 1998 Pirates were humiliated 42-20 by Alachua Santa Fe in the region semifinals? That was the postseason fate that seemed to await any county team that dared advance.
Yes, there was always a county football champion, perhaps one or two playoff teams. But no one gave them a chance to advance far into the postseason. Yes, making the playoffs is great. But four years had gone by since the county had a postseason victory, and in that time Pasco County football had become a target of derision, both inside and outside the county.
Pasco County teams didn't have the talent, the dedication, the numbers, the confidence, the history that other programs had. What made it worse was much of it was true.
The scheduling fiasco of two years ago didn't help. Hillsborough and Pinellas County teams decimated local schools who were unprepared for the onslaught, taking big chunks of pride and confidence back with them on every triumphant bus ride back home.
But in two years time that has all changed. County coaches and players fought their way back into contention. They have schemed. They have planned. They have worked. This year county teams finally ignored the nay-sayers _ Ridgewood will never make the playoffs; a second-year varsity team can't sneak in; Pasco will never make it back _ to send a record six county teams into the playoffs.
How did they do it? They started early. They looked at the schedules and saw what needed to be done. They spent the offseason working as hard as their counterparts in Hillsborough and Marion and Polk counties did.
They worked harder and coached smarter, tailoring schemes to fit their best players. Pasco spent the summer building a passing offense around Ben Alford. Ridgewood installed the I-formation around Adamm Oliver. Land O'Lakes was already into Year 2 of the Drew Weatherford project. Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel, well, were Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel. You knew they would be ready.
Teams also spent time shoring up their weaknesses. For Mitchell, that meant fixing a porous defense. For Ridgewood, that meant burying a radioactive past that sapped the team's confidence. For Pasco, that meant fixing a morale and leadership problem that was in its fourth season.
Tonight, Land O'Lakes and Zephyrhills face two favored foes. But no matter the outcome _ and I'm betting neither one is yet done with the playoffs just yet _ the most important thing to remember is this: How it was done, and how it must be done again.
And it must be done again and again, until Pasco County can finally compete with the rest of the state. Tonight is not the end.