Champagnat Catholic wide receiver Johnquai Lewis went down on a knee and put his head down on the sideline.
One of his assistant coaches consoled the freshman as the final seconds ticked away on a 24-8 loss to Jacksonville University Christian in the Class 2A state championship game at Camping World Stadium.
“Hey, keep your head up, we’ll be back,” the coach said. “You’ve got a lot of football left ahead of you.”
And there was the silver lining for Champagnat as the players exited the field: A whole bunch of them do have a lot of football ahead of them.
When the Lions took the field on Friday morning they had five freshmen, including Lewis, in the starting lineup and not a single senior on the offensive side of the ball.
“Today was tough but we’re going to work together, stay together and get back up here again and get this ring,” said Lewis, who recorded the Lions only score of the day when he caught a 13-yard touchdown pass in the game’s final minute and finished with four catches for 45 yards.
“We’ve got a great future as a program for sure.”
Three years ago, when Champagnat knocked off Lakeland Victory Christian 14-7 in the title game to win its first state title, it appeared the Lions would be a regular annual visitor to Orlando.
But just one year later, everything fell apart quickly.
Then-head coach Mike Tunsil, with his team trailing by a lopsided margin in the Lions’ regular season finale at IMG Academy in Bradenton, marched his players off the field in the third quarter resulting in a forfeit.
As a result, the Lions were forced to forfeit their spot in the state playoffs, ending their chance to defend their title.
A few months later, Tunsil stepped down and numerous players transferred to other schools leaving the cupboard as bare as could be for new head coach Dennis Marroquin, who was hired a short time later.
“In Dade County, it’s always a gamble,” said Marroquin, who inherited a roster of just 18 players and suffered through a rough 2-7 campaign in 2015.
“You always have to keep working harder and harder to keep kids together but I think these kids worked hard and really bonded together this year and now it will be all about continuing to build this thing for the future. I’m confident that we’ll keep all of this together and get back up here again.”
Isabel Alonso, the school’s longtime Director of Operations and the one responsible for bringing Marroquin in to put things back together, was one of the few Lions’ representatives on-hand Friday that was also there for the 2013 championship.
“When I sat down with Coach Dennis a couple of years ago, it was not about winning a game, it was about building a program and building a dynasty and that’s what he’s on board for,” Alonso said.
“The ship is a lot tighter now. Nobody is ever late, nobody is ever out of uniform. Everybody is working together and there isn’t a single selfish coach or single selfish kid on this team and that’s the key to holding things together.”
Defensive end Jesus Machado was another one of those starting freshmen and was part of a strong Lions defensive effort on Friday that held University Christian in check for three quarters, leading the way with 15 total tackles and a sack.
“Yeah, we’ve got a lot of young guys on this team and it’s just a matter of us sticking together and getting back up here again next year,” said Machado, who is so talented he already has schools the likes of Michigan State, West Virginia, N.C. State and Alabama contacting him.
“We’re all pretty tight.”
Said Marroquin: Today was rough for the kids but being on a big stage like this can only be a benefit them moving forward in the future. I’m really proud of them for not only hanging there today but what they accomplished this season.”