Central’s football team first felt the elation of beating one of the nation’s best teams in Las Vegas.
Then that joy turned to concern for their loved ones back home as Hurricane Irma swept through South Florida while they were stranded there.
So after waiting two weeks to get back into football mode, a nearly two-hour lightning delay did little to affect the Rockets on Friday night.
“It was a roller coaster of emotions [recently],” Miami Central principal Greg Bethune said. “You go from the excitement of traveling to Vegas, playing in a big game on national TV, to winning to going back to the somber mood of worrying about your family and their well-being back at home. And then being stuck and not being able to help them.”
Central, ranked No. 5 nationally by USA Today, fell to national powerhouse and No. 2-ranked IMG Academy 24-15.
It was the Rockets’ first game in two weeks since they beat another nationally ranked team, Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas.
Central then had to wait an extra week to return home after flights were canceled in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
"A lot of these kids are the men in their family," Bethune said. "So if there are windows to be boarded up or things to be taken in, these would be the people to do it in their houses."
Aided by the generosity of Bishop Gorman, several locals in Las Vegas and the Dolphins, who all contributed both financially and with meals during their stay, the Rockets all finally made it back home a week ago.
“I thought this was a good bonding experience for us as a team,” Central coach Roland Smith said. “We’re trying to play for each other and play for our community.”
The Rockets seemed to have little in common with their opponent Friday night other than their respective lofty places in the national rankings.
Yet Central, a Miami inner-city public school with only a couple of practice fields on campus for football, and IMG Academy, a private boarding school with one of the nation’s top athletic facilities, each got back to some normalcy this week after Hurricane Irma.
IMG Academy, located on an over 500-acre campus, suffered some minor fence damage as well and most of its 700 students that live on-site either left the Bradenton area or were evacuated to nearby Gullett Elementary school, which served as a hurricane shelter during the storm.
Smith said other than power outages, some tree damage and one coach who suffered some damage to his car, Hurricane Irma didn’t inflict any major hardships on his team.
"We came back to a lot of situations where a lot of kids didn’t have power," Bethune said. "But one of the things that was overwhelming was the community support. The people who were here and knew that we played for them and in their honor. Just that outpouring of love and appreciation for the things we did when we didn’t know we were doing something for them because we felt helpless to help them out. But in reality, we were giving them something to distract them from the storm."
Smith said this Rockets’ team, which opens district play against Miami Norland next week, is becoming one of his closest ever.
“We got a chance to bond even more [in Las Vegas],” Smith said. “The kids got to spend time with their teammates more than they normally would. They learned to be roommates. They learned to wake each other up and learned to be on time. They learned to experience what it will be like for a lot of them when they go to college. For us that really helped us a lot.”
The group held a picnic on the beach together before the season began where Smith said each player talked about their goals for the upcoming year.
While waiting to come back from Vegas, the team held limited practices in the parking lot of their hotel. They got to see local sights including the Circus Circus rollercoaster.
The Rockets were also visited by former Dallas Cowboys great Drew Pearson, who spoke to the team at the Las Vegas Convention Center near their hotel.
“He showed the kids the Super Bowl ring and told them who the best Cowboys receiver to wear No. 88 was,” Bethune said.
After two plays on defense Friday, an eager Central team was then forced to wait an hour and 49 minutes until the inclement weather moved away from the area.
Central then went toe-to-toe with IMG, leading 15-10 until junior running back and University of Alabama commit Trey Sanders broke loose for a 65-yard touchdown run that put the Ascenders on course to their 31st consecutive victory.
Central fell short Friday, but overcoming adversity is hardly a new challenge for the Rockets.
“This group of kids is used to ups and downs,” Bethune said. “They are used to instability. To them, this is not something that is going to rock them. They are used to gun violence in the community. They are used to drug addiction in the community. They are used to hurdles.
“That’s what makes them better because they have seen things that other kids their age, especially outside our community, haven’t seen.”
▪ Seniors James Cook (14 carries for 79 yards) and Willie Davis (nine carries for 74 yards) each scored go-ahead touchdowns as the Rockets totaled 249 rushing yards.
▪ Senior linebacker Robert Hicks, a Louisville commit, and senior defensive back Davonta Wilson, a Colorado State commit, each had interceptions in the first half.
▪ But special teams miscues including a blocked punt by IMG that was recovered in the end zone by Xavier Thomas eventually doomed Central (3-1).
▪ The Rockets committed 23 penalties for 195 yards, while IMG was flagged 10 times for 90 yards.