TAMPA — On the opposing sideline, a handful of navy Cambridge Christian jerseys were mixed in among the royal blues from visiting West Park Prep. The Elephants had driven five hours from Hollywood that afternoon, arriving without enough jerseys to go around, just 45 minutes before their scheduled matchup with the Lancers.
It was steadily raining, their uniforms didn't match, and Cambridge Christian jumped ahead early, taking a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter.
But the Elephants were on the field. And that alone was a victory.
The first-year high school program was supposed to have played a game earlier this month, but Hurricane Irma prevented that from happening. While dealing with the aftermath of the storm, the Elephants, many of whom had never played a down of high school football before Friday's game, got a new coach in Cleveland Gary Jr.
He called Cambridge Christian athletic director Mark Butler before the game and told it to him straight. They just weren't ready.
"I spoke with Mr. Butler and I said, 'We may need some more time,' " Gary said. "He told me, 'Coach, just come on.' We just decided to come out here and fight."
It was a losing battle for the Elephants, who were no match for a Lancer run game that fueled Cambridge Christian's 50-12 victory at Skyway Park. Cambridge Christian couldn't be stopped on the ground, amassing 242 rushing yards, 121 of which came from three-star running back Andrew Cunningham.
"I don't think we let up at all. We knew they were a first-year team, but we didn't know how they were going to come out," said Cunningham, who scored touchdowns of 1 and 25 yards. "So we just really gave it our all, and they gave us their best."
And from the beginning, that much was clear.
The Lancers, a team that came in having won 22 of their Past 25 games, could have run away with it early. The Elephants (0-1) wouldn't let them. Cambridge Christian took a 14-0 lead early, but West Park forced the Lancers to muff a punt, resulting in a Lancer (4-1) turnover, and later in the first half, the Elephants earned their program's first points on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Dwayne Burnett to Keyshawn Brownlee.
Brownlee would find the end zone again with less than a minute to play, scoring on an 80-yard kickoff return as his team refused to quit in its delayed debut. Athlete Terrell Thomas ran the ball all night for West Park, and he finished with a team-high 75 yards.
"We couldn't tackle him, and (Vashawn Walker) is a big, strong, fast kid. The quarterback chucked the ball a mile," Cambridge Christian coach Bob Dare said. "So it's just a matter of getting it all together."
With a second-half running clock, the Lancers continued to pound their opponent. Cambridge Christian finished with 397 yards of total offense, and the defense picked off Burnett three times and recovered a West Park fumble.
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They were weathered and worn, and many still had 'Lancers' written across their chests. But after the game, the Elephants only had words of gratitude for their hosts.
"Y'all boys gave us work," said Thomas, who addressed both teams as they met at midfield. "There was no fighting, no fussing, and we don't even know each other from a can of paint."
The Elephants had a long night ahead. It was 10:30 p.m., and they planned to eat a postgame meal of Culver's, provided by Cambridge Christian, before boarding buses that would take them right back to their Miami suburb.
But it would be a long time, Gary said, before they'd forget their first game, and the team that made it all happen.
"They're beyond nice. Those are good, Christian folk. We owe them, and I mean that," Gary said. "When we host them next year, we're going to try to return the same love and even more."