The Zephyrhills Bulldogs played approximately 540 minutes of football this season — but it was the final two minutes that were the most disappointing.
The team came up short on a fourth-and-one that would have sealed a victory in their first playoff game in eight seasons. Instead, their opponent — Suwannee High School from Live Oak — drove down the field quickly and scored a touchdown.
Suwannee then recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff for another score. And just like that, Zephyrhills’ season was gone.
But not forgotten.
“We’re a little disappointed about the loss, not getting the win up in Live Oak, especially being ahead most of the game,” Bulldogs head coach Reggie Roberts said. “But we played good football to get there, and we played good football when we got there. But we just have to finish at that level.”
As the sting of not finishing a winnable playoff loss subsides — the team led 24-9 at the half — it will be replaced by memories of the good football that brought them to that point in the first place. Their 8-3 final record is the best of Roberts’ tenure, which began in 2010.
It was their fourth straight year with a winning record, and the playoff appearance snapped an eight-year drought without postseason play. The Bulldogs took the field for that game ready to play their brand of football, not like a team that was just happy to be there or wanted to play conservatively.
For his part, Roberts has no regrets about going for it on that critical fourth down at the end of the game. Converting that yard would have meant a victory, he said, and the circumstances at that time and the field position dictated it was the best move for the team.
But that decision was made and the playoff game is over. And Roberts, like all successful coaches, doesn’t like to dwell in the past. He’s already looking ahead to 2015, and he likes what he sees.
While he admits that replacing offensive cogs like quarterback Ty Tanner, receiver Tyler Kirby and running back Jaylen Pickett won’t be easy, Roberts believes the team’s depth will step up and fill the gaps.
“Our seniors will be missed, but by the same token, we have a lot of young players that know how to play football,” he said.
The Bulldogs will welcome back known talent like receiver Jackie Tucker and running back Antwione Sims, who distinguished himself this season and in the playoff game. They also have a number of junior varsity players who are ready to graduate to varsity and contribute immediately.
If there’s an early area of concern, it’s the kicking game. Somebody will need to fill punter and kicker Zach Gleaton’s spot, but there’s time to find a replacement. But from offensive line to other skill positions, the coach feels good about the talent he’ll carry into 2015.
“I like what we have coming back,” Roberts said.
He also likes the renewed community interest in Zephyrhills football, and the fact that coaches are now coming to him asking for advice on how to build and maintain a successful program.
The returning players will bring a renewed desire to win and a lot of pride in what they’re building, but they’ll also carry some bitterness about the way the season ended. After the playoff loss, he found the younger players hurting after the game, even if they didn’t get on the field much.
They were upset at the way things ended for the team, and the coach wants them to use that frustration as fuel for next season.
“They’re going to remember that pain,” Roberts said. “They’re going to remember this experience. They’re going to remember it takes blood, and hopefully that’s going to just energize them and motivate them to get back there (to the playoffs) every year.”
If Roberts is looking for indications that the team will learn from this year’s lessons, he’s already seen some positive signs as the long off-season gets underway.
The players aren’t interested in taking extended breaks, even when offered by the coach at the end of a hard-fought playoff game and a successful 2014 campaign.
“I gave the kids two weeks off, and the kids were in the weight room” four days after the playoff game, he said. “If that doesn’t tell you anything, it tells me a lot.”
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