One by one, Cypress Bay coach Mark Guandolo walked up to each of his players as they were sprawled on the Citrus Bowl field Saturday night.
He tried consoling them. He then tried to pick them up off the ground.
But nothing could shake the feeling of heartbreak or the despondent attitude of a team that felt like a state championship was ripped away in a 53-50 loss to Apopka in the Class 8A state final — which was one of the highest-scoring games in finals history.
“This was a hell of a game, something you want to be involved with,” said Guandolo, who became the first coach in state history to coach his third different team in the state finals. “Our kids, I’m just so proud of them. We kept fighting. That’s what we train for to finish the games and play hard in the fourth quarter. You hate to lose one like this.”
Two controversial roughing the passer penalties, plus a pass interference non-call that stirred up more feelings of injustice from Cypress Bay, nullified key defensive stops and ultimately sealed the outcome in a back-and-forth game in which both teams combined for 103 points — third-highest in state final history.
Not long after his spectacular one-handed touchdown catch to put the Lightning ahead 50-46, Cypress Bay receiver/defensive back Alex Montgomery felt he sealed the game when he intercepted Apopka quarterback Zack Darlington with 3:31 remaining in the fourth.
The play, however, was nullified when the officials called Cypress Bay for roughing the passer when Griffin Jossfolk put his hands on Darlington after the throw.
“I was just trying to get an explanation,” Guandolo said. “They called a late hit on the quarterback. It was during the play. They just threw it late, flag come out late.”
It was the second such penalty that nullified a key defensive stop by the Lightning’s defense.
Apopka drove down and scored the winning touchdown with 1:29 left when Chandler Cox scored from 2 yards out.
Cypress Bay nearly came back in spite of it on the ensuing drive.
The Lightning reached the Apopka 13-yard line when another play stirred up controversy. Cypress Bay quarterback Jaranta Lewis rolled to his right and flung the ball into the end zone. Although there was contact between Lightning running back Matt Dayes and Apopka defender J.J. Simmons, no call was made and Simmons deflected the ball enough to allow Rakeem Smith to intercept the pass and seal the outcome.
“I don’t have any explanations,” Guandolo said. “It’s disappointing. The official said they were both going for the ball. They came up with a heck of an interception.”
The officiating crew of George Malacos, Paul Chaplin Jr., Pat Brandhuber, Edgar Prado, James Price, Pedro Rodriguez and Dan Beaudry from Hernando County in Brooksville near Tampa called a combined 27 penalties for 234 yards. They called 14 for 123 yards on Apopka and 13 for 111 yards on Cypress Bay.
“I have no words,” Montgomery said. “We had the game sealed with the interception. They took it away. They called the B.S. call. It is what it is. When I saw the flag on the big screen [behind the end zone] down there, I said, I hope it’s not on us. But like always, it was.”
Montgomery caught nine passes for 199 yards — breaking the state finals record in that category — and caught three touchdown passes. He also made another one-handed touchdown catch on a 31-yard connection early in the second quarter.
Apopka totaled 584 yards and Cypress Bay finished with 519.
Dayes ran for 170 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries.
Lewis blamed himself for the loss, although he finished with 244 yards passing on 12 of 19 attempts and three touchdowns.
“I let them down,” Lewis said. “The last play, I just tried to give him a chance. He had him one-on-one. It didn’t work. I let my team down. We’re family. It’s all family. We just played for each other and that’s what got us where we are. But we didn’t finish, so it doesn’t count. Nobody remembers a second-place team.”
Cypress Bay’s defense appeared to stop Apopka for the first time early in the second quarter with the game tied at 14 after forcing Darlington to throw an incompletion on third and 12 at the Lightning 45. But the Lightning was penalized for roughing the passer after a defender gave Darlington a minor shove following his throw.
Three plays later, Darlington scored from 9 yards out to put Apopka back in front. Apopka chose to go for two after a pair of procedure penalties moved the ball to the Cypress Bay 1-yard line. Chandler Cox pushed his way into the end zone to give the Blue Darters a 22-14 lead.
The Lightning defense then had another opportunity to stop Apopka slip through its fingers. On third and 10 from its own 20, Apopka converted when Darlington’s deep pass went through the hands of Deion Hallmon and was caught by Trey Richardson for a 42-yard gain. Apopka scored again four plays later when Chandler Cox ran it in from 2 yards out to take a 46-35 lead late in the third.
“I saw the calls on the screens,” Guandolo said. “That’s part of the game. You got to give Apopka a lot of credit. They do a great job. It’s a disappointing loss. I feel sorry for my players and coaches. They really deserve this one.”
CYPRESS BAY 50
APO-Isom 5 run (Wilson kick)
CB-Montgomery 26 pass from Lewis (Bray kick)
APO-Isom 13 pass from Darlington (Wilson kick)
CB-Dayes 71 run (Bray kick)
APO-Darlington 9 run (Cox run)
CB-Montgomery 31 pass from Lewis (Bray kick)
APO-Smith 69 pass from Darlington (Wilson kick)
APO-Cox 1 run (Wilson kick)
CB-Dayes 5 run (Bray kick)
APO-FG Wilson 45
CB-Dayes 2 run (Bray kick)
APO-Cox 2 run (Wilson kick)
CB-Dayes 1 run (Montgomery pass from Lewis)
CB-Montgomery 22 pass from Lewis (Bray kick)
APO-Cox 2 run (Wilson kick)