Kato Nelson couldn’t watch. So he buried his head in his hands, turned his back to the field and started to pray.
“When I heard the fans on our side of the field start to yell and scream, I knew our defense had stopped them,” Champagnat Catholic’s sophomore starting quarterback said. “No better feeling in the world than being state champs.”
Four years ago, the prospect of having a football program at Champagnat, a tiny Catholic private school in Hialeah with 210 students, seemed like a long shot. They had no practice field, no weight room and no budget.
Friday afternoon, the Lions — who used a $2,000 winning scratch off ticket to fund their trip to the Citrus Bowl — captured their first state championship, a heart-pounding 14-7 victory against Lakeland Victory Christian in the Class 2A final.
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“It was scary,” said Lions coach Mike Tunsil, whose team led 14-0 entering the fourth quarter but needed three defensive stops deep in its own territory to preserve a 14-0 season.
“Everybody knows we’ve been through a lot. We have to catch a bus just to go to practice. We had to earn this one, but it definitely shows that through hard work anything can happen.”
Through three quarters, Champagnat’s defense, led by 6-4, 320-pound tackle and U.S. Army All-American Travonte Valentine, were in complete control. A pair of touchdown runs by junior tailback Michael Fredrick — a 4-yarder in the first quarter and a 10-yarder on the opening drive of the second half — made a 14-0 lead feel like it was insurmountable.
But after Victory Christian quarterback Caleb Lewis engineered a 6-play, 60-yard scoring drive in under two minutes to trim the Lions lead in half with 6:24 to play the pressure was on Champagnat.
A quick three-and-out quickly put the ball back in Lewis’ hands at the Victory 45-yard line. Five plays later, the Storm (10-4) had a 3rd-and-one at the Champagnat 31-yard line. Tunsil called time out. But even after coming out of the break, the Lions had one too many players on the field.
As Champagnat defensive coordinator Jon Drummond tried to wave linebacker Nathaniel Holloway off the field, Lewis, sensing a penalty and an easy first down, quickly asked his center to snap the ball. He took it and quickly took a knee. But the refs never threw the flag. On fourth down, Lewis couldn’t connect with his receiver and Champagnat took over on downs with 2:34 remaining.
“We got away with one,” Tunsil said afterward. “There were 12 men on the field. The ref on our side missed it. A smart quarterback saw 12 men on the field and took a knee. It came back to bite him because the ref missed it.”
Champagnat forced Victory to use two of its three time outs, but only used up 23 seconds on its ensuing possession after a third-down pass by Nelson fell incomplete. Victory took over at its own 42 and drove to the Champagnat 19 with 1:17 remaining. But on first down Valentine came crashing through the line for a sack and an 8-yard loss. An incomplete pass and a screen play that gained only one yard led to fourth down. Lewis fired a pass toward running back Brice Ford in the end zone, but it was well short and incomplete.
“We knew we couldn’t come out here and just throw the ball on the field, make our receivers tired when we have guys going both ways,” Tunsil said. “We had to play smart, run the ball and control them on defense. We basically put in their hands.”
The Lions produced two interceptions (Antione Webster and Calvin Foster each had one), five sacks (Travorie McRae 2, Keddrick Labady 2, Valentine 1) and allowed just 193 yards in the game.
“Taking a trophy home is definitely icing on the cake,” said athletic director Isabel Alonso, whose parents founded Champagnat Catholic in 1968 and started the football program after he mother passed away in 2010.
“For me it’s all about these guys getting ready for the next level, getting to college. That’s our goal as a school. But to go home with this kind of memory today and these kids knowing they did something great, phenomenal something we’ll never forget. If my mom was here, she would be out there jumping and screaming with these boys.”