The defense that yielded the fewest points in Miami-Dade County this season refused to break even under the most dire circumstances.
But with its offense held in check for the first three quarters of Saturday’s Class 8A state championship game, it appeared it wouldn’t be enough to save Southridge from impending defeat.
Then the Spartans’ offense woke up.
And when quarterback Michael Cox heaved the ball down the sideline and wide receiver Mark Pope caught it, he and the Spartans were racing to their first state championship since 1993.
Cox’s 72-yard touchdown pass to Pope held up after one final defensive stand, and Southridge celebrated a 14-10 victory over Orlando Dr. Phillips by running onto the field at Camping World Stadium.
“We had a goal all year that if we can hold people to less than three touchdowns we can win any game,” said Southridge coach Billy Rolle, who is in his second year leading the Spartans. “[Pope] was asking for the ball and we knew we had to throw in that second half.”
The Spartans (12-2) won their third state championship in school history, and Rolle made a little history of his own.
Rolle, who guided Miami Northwestern to state titles in 1998 and 2007, and Miami Killian to another in 2004, became the first coach in state history to win a state championship at three schools.
“All three of the programs where I’ve coached always have serious talent so if you have that kind of talent you always have a shot,” Rolle said. “I figured I’d be close to home at Southridge so why not give it a shot. But I must say once again, my assistants do an amazing job.”
In a year when Dade and Broward teams matched their combined record of six teams playing in the state finals, Southridge’s dramatic win gave South Florida four state champions. It was the fifth consecutive season the two counties combined to win four or more state championships.
It was also the first time Dade and Broward teams swept the top four classifications since the state expanded to eight in 2005.
Carol City won its first state title since 2003 and fifth overall earlier in the day, and both St. Thomas Aquinas and American Heritage each won championships on Friday.
Southridge had the most dramatic finish.
A week after the Spartans overcame six turnovers with 20 points in the fourth quarter against Deerfield Beach, they had to overcome a poor first half in which they amassed only 55 total yards. But in the second half, Southridge totaled 230 yards, including 143 in the fourth quarter after the Spartans offense unexpectedly came alive following a fumble recovery by safety Billy Gibson with 11:54 left.
“My mind-set throughout the game was let the game come to you, you can’t go to the game,” Gibson said. “I always work to try and be around the ball, just be there because you never know what might happen on defense.”
It took the Spartans 14 plays to go 67 yards and capitalize, but they did when on fourth-and-goal, Jordan Dillard made spectacular 8-yard catch in the corner of the end zone.
Cox rolled out and heaved it into the end zone, where the ball bounced off a defender, allowing Dillard to race in and make the catch.
Dr. Phillips blocked the ensuing extra point, but Southridge cut its lead to 10-6 with 8:26 left.
After forcing the Panthers to punt on their ensuing drive, the Spartans regained possession deep in their own territory after a clipping call backed them up to their own 11-yard line.
Southridge converted a third-and-8 on a pass interference call with Cox throwing to Pope. On the next play, Cox hit Pope for the touchdown pass.
“Before the game, I told my coach [Southridge offensive coordinator David Cooney] to give me a chance,” Pope said. “I told him I can beat them deep. I was patient all night and they finally gave me a chance.”
Southridge’s offense suffered a setback early in the game when leading rusher Bentavious Thompson fractured his clavicle and did not return.
The Spartans’ defense, which shut out eight of its foes during the season — including seven in a row at one point — yielded 10 points for only the second time in its past 10 games, but kept its team in the game.
“In the end, it was all about our defense tonight because they busted it to keep us in the game,” Cox said. “But it felt great for us as an offense to come up big in the end and help them out.”