Despite being the defending 2A state champions, the Champagnat Lions, with a roster purged during the offseason thanks in part to a splintered coaching staff, played the role of underdogs and overcame every obstacle throughout the 2018 season.
Champagnat played that role one last time on Friday morning when the Lions took on Tallahassee North Florida Christian in the 2A state championship game at Camping World Stadium.
Only this time, a team that won four consecutive games on the road to get to the title game couldn’t quite climb its way out of one final hole it dug itself into, losing 28-20 to North Florida Christian.
“I’m not completely disappointed because I’m proud of the kids for battling the way they did all season to hang in there and get to this point,” said first year Champagnat head coach Hector Clavijo. “But certainly you have to be disappointed with the result only in the fact that we practically gave them free points and you just can’t do that when you get to a championship game and play a good team like this. You give them 14 points and lose by eight – do the math.”
Clavijo referred to the first play of the game when a high pass in the right flat from quarterback Chris Vidal to Malik Rutherford that Rutherford tipped into the air resulted in an NFC 35-yard pick six touchdown along with a third-quarter Eagles touchdown when a high snap over punter Leonardo Zuazo’s head went into the end zone and was recovered by NFC. The latter play left the Lions in a 21-6 hole.
But, like they did all season that saw them struggle to a 4-5 record, they battled back cutting the Eagles’ lead to 21-14 thanks to an 85-yard, five-play drive and subsequent two-point conversion following the special teams punting disaster with Justin Payoute scoring from 4 yards out.
After North Florida Christian (9-4) re-extended its lead to 14 on a touchdown just before the end of the third quarter, Champagnat (8-6) came right back with another drive (80 yards in 9 plays), Daryn “Duke” Jones going over from 3 yards out with 10:12 left. But placekicking issues from earlier in the game (Zuazo missed a PAT and a short 24-yard field goal attempt) prompted Clavijo to go for another two-point conversion which failed, leaving the Lions down eight.
With less than four minutes left and the Eagles at midfield milking the clock, things looked bleak for the Lions. But the defense came up with a big play when Deondrick Speight popped NFC quarterback J.D. Jerry forcing a fumble that Walter Phillips recovered just before it went out of bounds giving Champy the ball at its own 45 with 3:35 left.
They made it to the Eagles 33 and, out of timeouts with 1:35 left, faced a fourth-and-six. Even though Champagnat coaches screamed that receiver Johnquai Lewis might have been interfered with on a quick slant pass from Emile Bien Aime that fell incomplete, no flag came out and the Eagles took three knees and started their celebration, the school’s eighth state title and first since 2011.
“A really tough loss,” said Jones, a two-way player but primarily a linebacker who has multiple offers and mentioned FAU and UCF at the top of his list. “We had some big mistakes that kind of put us in a hole we couldn’t climb out of. As a captain I tried to lead this team through adversity all season long and am proud that we made it this far. But it still really hurts that we coudn’t close it out.”
Besides the “free” points the Lions gave NFC, perhaps the other big moment in the game came just before halftime. Linebacker Donald Georges, the team’s leading tackler and heart and soul of the defense, left the game with a toe injury.
By no coincidence, North Florida Christian, which had just one first down on offense to that point, put together a touchdown drive in the final three minutes of the half, scoring with just three seconds left on a one-yard plunge by Jerry to put the Eagles up 14-6 at the break.
“That was huge,” said Clavijo. “Donald is our defensive leader, the heart and soul of that unit and it’s not a coincidence that they put two long touchdown drives together after he came out.”
Georges added: “I think I fractured it. I tried to come back but just couldn’t go and it killed me not being able to be out there to help my teammates. We had doubters all season long, nobody gave us a chance to get back here and here we were today and everybody else was watching ‘us’ play.”
Said Clavijo: “I was still proud of the way the kids battled back today, even after things didn’t go well. And in a way, that was kind of a microcosm of our season – battling back.”