TAMPA — It had been quite the season for Jefferson, one riddled with injuries and suspensions of players and coach alike. So it seemed only fitting that the extenuation of the Dragons' season relied on one single, dramatic play.
With a district title and a playoff berth on the line in Monday's game against Jesuit, strong defensive performances on both sides pushed the game to overtime. Jefferson struck first in extra time, and the Tigers soon responded. But instead of kicking the extra point and sending it to a second overtime, Jesuit elected to attempt the two-point conversion.
"We came from nothing. We thought we were going to lose, everybody thought we were going to lose," defensive tackle Titi Almosse said about his team's past turmoil. "But we needed a stop."
And in that moment, that's exactly what the Dragons got.
Jesuit handed the ball off to running back Vinny Losauro, who ran straight into a wall of Jefferson defenders. Seeing that he was going to get tackled, Losauro heaved a pass towards the end zone, but it was batted away, giving Jefferson a 17-16 overtime victory. The Dragon sideline erupted.
Single guys on defense had been stepping up for Jefferson (8-2) all game long. But on that play, with the postseason on the line, it was impossible to say which Dragon made the stop.
"It's a great microcosm of the year. It's been everybody," said coach Jeremy Earle, who came back in October after serving a multiple-week suspension. "We've won ugly, we've won pretty, and it's just a great testament to these young men, this team and how hard they've worked."
Against Jesuit, few things came easy.
The Tigers' stingy defense allowed Jefferson fewer than 100 yards of total offense in the first half, and nearly 70 of it was on the Dragons' opening drive, which was capped by a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matthew Gaffney to Dane Belton.
But really, that was all part of the plan.
"We've been preparing for this game for a while. We wanted to come out, shock the defense, make a couple good throws," Gaffney said. "Punch them in the mouth a little bit, that's what we wanted to come out here and do."
It might have taken a while, but eventually, the Tigers (4-4) punched right back.
Jefferson led 7-0 at halftime, but on its second drive of the second half, Jesuit took it to the red zone, before the Jefferson defense forced the Tigers to settle for a 27-yard field goal. Jesuit pulled the same stunt on a fourth-quarter Jefferson drive, making a goal-line stand to stop the Dragons on the half-yard line and forcing them to kick a short field goal.
The next time Jesuit got the ball, though, it wouldn't be stopped short. Losauro carried it eight times on the drive, eventually scoring on a 2-yard run to tie it up with 3:35 left in regulation.
With both teams' defenses playing lights out all night, Jefferson was fortunate to score on third and 10 in overtime when Gaffney hit Justin McGriff with a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone. Jesuit tight end Larry Hodges responded with a 4-yard rushing touchdown of his own moments later, but in quite the fitting end, it was the defense that would have the final say.
"They really have picked us up all year," Earle said, pausing to choke back tears. "When you think back to the whole year, all the drama, the hard times these guys have gone through. It makes it that sweet."