Southridge principal Humberto J. Miret paced the sidelines Saturday night wearing a t-shirt he had made up at the beginning of last school year.
The black shirt read ‘Return of the Empire,’ a reference not only to a couple of Star Wars movies but also to a resurgence of the Spartans’ football program.
Coach Billy Rolle said he came to Southridge last year to help bring the glory back to one of South Florida’s most storied programs.
After winning the Class 8A title with a thrilling 14-10 victory over homestanding Orlando Dr. Phillips, Rolle was asked a simple question: ‘Is the Ridge back?’
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“Yeah, you could say that,” Rolle said with a grin.
Rolle, who made history as the first Florida coach to win state titles at three different schools, says he never lost faith in his team despite its struggles against the Panthers throughout the night.
Down 10-0 at the half, Rolle said he extolled his troops to keep fighting — knowing the Spartans’ outstanding defense was going to keep things close.
“It never got far away from us, from our defense,” Rolle said of Dr. Phillips’ failure to pull away.
“The defense hung in there, they could have hung their head at any time. We just needed two scores. ... We had some magic, I’ll tell you that.”
Southridge (12-2) finally got on the board with 8:26 left when Jordan Dillard caught an 8-yard heave from Michael Cox which was tipped in the corner of the end zone on fourth down.
With 4:20 left, Cox found Mark Pope streaking down the left sideline and connected for an improbable — yet so needed — 72-yard scoring pass.
“We just took a shot,” Rolle said.
After Antoine Collier and Dillard hooked up on the 2-point play, Dr. Phillips (12-3) needed to put the ball in the end zone to win.
Few teams have scored on the Spartans this year yet the stress showed on Rolle’s face.
“Our guys hung in there,” said Rolle, whose team shutout seven consecutive opponents through the first two games of the postseason and gave up a grand total of 31 points since being shut out themselves by Class 6A champ Carol City way back on Sept. 23.
“We had a goal all year; if we get three touchdowns, we can hold people under three. We didn’t get our three, but we held them.”
Following the 2014 season, Miret and athletic director Shawn Carney approached Rolle about his interest in coming to ‘The Ridge.’
After winning just two games that previous season at Coral Reef, Rolle said he was very interested in the job.
Rolle won two state titles at Northwestern and a third at Killian; the Spartans were ready to get back in that championship arena and figured Rolle knew how to do it.
“We’re a very proud school and we have worked very hard to get back to this,” Carney said on the jubilant Southridge sideline.
“This is my fourth year as AD, and I’m happy to be able to help build these teams up. I’m proud of these guys and for our community. You see how they came out for us. The importance of this team to our community is incredible.”
Although Rolle said he left a lot of the coaching to his assistants — "all I do is ride around on a golf cart!" he exclaimed — there’s little doubt how much he has meant to the players and bringing back the prestige the Southridge name once carried.
It even has the school’s principal ready for new Star Wars themed t-shirts.
“The Spartan Awakens,” Miret said when the idea was offered up by a reporter.
“Yeah, I like that.”