ORLANDO -- It wasn’t the bruised ribs, sore ankles or the cramps in his calves that had Dade Christian quarterback Gary Sampson in his tears Friday afternoon at the Citrus Bowl.
It was a broken heart.
Dade Christian’s dream season — fueled on the blood and sweat of two-way players like Sampson, receiver Terrence Alls, linemen Danny Nunez, Aaron Batten and Kelvin Acosta — ran out of juice in the final quarter of the season in a 28-10 loss to Jacksonville University Christian in the Class 2A title game.
While this hurts, especially for his 11 seniors, Crusaders coach Mike Sonneborn is going home with the next best thing to a state championship trophy: a sense of legitimacy. And in a crowded high school football landscape such as South Florida where players swap schools about as often as they do shoes, that’s golden.
“People want to play for good teams,” said Sonneborn, who has gone 77-22 in nine seasons at Dade Christian. “Getting here kind of legitimizes us … they always say the first one is the toughest one to get to. We’ll be back.”
Sonneborn, 35, has proven he can build a winner and send kids to top colleges. When he took over at Dade Christian in 2004, he thought he had committed career suicide when only seven players showed up for his first practice. He ended up with just 17 players on the roster that season. The team finished 2-6.
But the Crusaders have been on an upward trend ever since, making the playoffs seven of the last eight seasons. The school’s past stars — quarterback Bilal Marshall (Purdue), safety Ryan Janvion (Wake Forest), linebacker Daniel Mack (Wake Forest) — all have landed at BCS conference schools. Alls (Duke commitment) and Batten (leaning toward Minnesota) will be the next two.
“One of the things that gets overlooked is you got to be tough to play on our football team,” Sonneborn said. “If you’re going to be a two-way guy you better tighten your chin strap. It’s not Class 8A or 7A or whatever, but those guys can go play anywhere.”
With a little more depth, who really knows what might have happened Friday. If not for key injuries to star linebacker Sterling Mack and a handful of others early on in the season, the Crusaders probably don’t end up having to start eight players both ways.
Maybe, Sampson, who began cramping up at the end of the quarter because he also had to start at strong safety, doesn’t miss five plays on a crucial fourth quarter drive because his calves “were on fire.”
Maybe Alls, who will have shoulder surgery on Wednesday for a torn rotator cuff he’s been playing with for two months, has enough in the tank to stop Hussein Howe from scoring the go-ahead touchdown.
“People don’t understand how hard it is to play both ways," Alls said. “You’ve got to have a strong will. I just had very little left.”
As disappointing as Friday’s loss was, Dade Christian’s seniors can leave with their heads held high. They went 31-5 over their past three seasons and became the first team in the school’s 51-year history to reach the state title game.
Said senior linebacker Victor Young, who led the team with 10 tackles Friday: “I think Dade Christian is on the map now.”