ORLANDO -- Thanks in part to quarterback Mike White’s 282 yards, University’s 7-year-old football program won its first state title.
Roger Harriott sat proud Saturday afternoon hoisted on the shoulders of a couple of his assistant coaches.
His players held up their index fingers, their gold medals, and the state championship trophy.
Their fans stood, saluted them and celebrated in the stands.
And the T-shirts they wore had a phrase that described the scene best:
Seven years after starting its football program, University School secured its first state championship after beating Madison County 24-17 in the Class 3A state final at the Citrus Bowl.
“We talked about being a second-half team,” Harriott said. “Once you get kids to believe they can accomplish anything and these kids proved that today.”
For a time early Saturday afternoon, however, University appeared to be headed to an ending similar to its last game in the Citrus Bowl two years ago.
That season, an upstart Suns team lost a triple-overtime heartbreaker to Ocala Trinity Catholic 56-55. Many of the players from that 2010 team that Harriott and his coaches consoled on that disappointing afternoon attended Saturday’s game hoping for a different outcome.
They got it as University rallied from a 17-0 deficit — its largest of the season — to finish with a perfect 12-0 record despite it mustering its lowest scoring output this year.
“We just said that there [were] 24 minutes left in the season,” University senior quarterback Mike White said of their halftime talk. “It’s up to us and what we’re going to do with it. We weren’t going to come in and lie down and not fight. We ended up doing it.”
White, who was offered and committed to the University of South Florida shortly after the game, was one of the architects of the rally.
With the Suns’ potent offense that came in averaging 42.7 points shut out until the final two minutes of the first half, White found rhythm with his deep pool of receivers, completing 21 of 31 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns to lead University back.
University’s defense, which allowed 7.6 points per game and had five shutouts this season, protected the lead in the closing moments of the game.
After Madison County got as close as University’s 20-yard line on the potential game-tying drive, linebacker Skai Moore sacked quarterback D.J. McKnight with 1:14 left. McKnight threw an incomplete pass forcing a fourth down and 17.
McKnight completed a pass over the middle to Neal Brown, but Wesley Smith delivered a vicious hit that stopped Brown a yard short of the first down.
Smith had a torn ACL and did not play in the 2010 state final that ended with the Suns being stopped a yard short of victory on a two-point conversion.
“We knew the down and distance and what we had to do,” Smith said. “I just saw the ball in his hands and just hit him from the side so he wouldn’t get the first down. I gave everything I had. I love these boys, and we weren’t going to let each other down.”
Madison County’s defense limited University to minus-2 rushing yards in the first half, and sophomore star Jordan Scarlett to 7 yards rushing on five carries.
Ilan Krus booted a 25-yard field goal with 2:02 left in the second quarter that gave University its first points.