Gators take pride in successful year
TAMPA - So the Gators go home empty handed. Sure, the Class 3A state runners-up bring back one type of trophy and some silver medals, not to mention memories — the good ones, anyway — of a season filled with many ups and followed by one incredible down. Yet, it's just not the same. After losing 3-1 to Plantation American Heritage on Saturday, the Gators, who did outscore opponents in the state tournament 17-4, are taking pride in their season. Even if it's still second place."We hadn't been past quarterfinals since our freshman year, but we built off each other, especially this season," said senior midfielder and North Florida-commit Jake Frahm, who had 21 assists this season. "We played with a lot of heart, but came up a little short." "I can't even explain in words how bad this hurts," Frahm added. Indeed, the sting has yet to wear off, and probably never will. Coming so close to tasting glory, then stumble at the finish line leaves wounds that will always be somewhat fresh. Just ask veteran coach Mark Pearson. This was his 15th season at the helm for Land O' Lakes (23-4-2), and it took 13 years to return to the state-title game. In 1999, Pearson took the Gators the 5A championship match, yet was on the losing end, as well. After that, the deepest Land O' Lakes had been was the region final in 2005. "I'm the longest-tenured coach in Pasco — I've got 15 years — and I plan on being the longest tenured coach next year," Pearson said. "We've got a lot of quality kids coming back and it's frustrating (taking this long to get back to the state final). It was a lot of hard work and time and energy put it. "It's a lot on my family and wife, but I have a lot of strong support." While feelings of "almost" sink in as the days carry on from the heartbreaking loss, players, especially the 10 seniors on the roster, cope with their emotions. As in Saturday while, almost begrudgingly, accepting those second-place medal, many eyes were red from tears after being doused with a wave of despair. "Maybe it really hasn't sunk in yet," said forward Nathan Dalton, who had a team-high 24 assists this season. "A lot kids were lying on the ground, but we had to keep our heads up. We made it this far and there's only two teams that did that. We're one of them." Players come and go, and next year's Gators will look vastly different. There will be a new senior class, one led by talented midfielder Sean Young and undoubtedly-improved keeper Mitch McCuen, and it will be up to them to do it all over again. This time bringing home a title that won't feel so empty. "There's a lot of young kids who still will be here next year," Dalton said. "They get a lot of experience here and a lot of team unity. They got a lot of great bus rides because the ones we had were some of the most fun I've ever had. It's good bonding. They have to push forward for this program." "I'll always remember the heart of this team," Frahm added. "As a senior, all you want to do is hold up that ring and have everyone be jealous of you. … But over the season, we became closer as a family off the field and on the pitch and we played with our heart — it's what got us this far."
Correspondent Mike Camunas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MikeCamunasTrib.