For team captains Cameron Bowling, Benny Hartsell, Will Crotty, Connor Rioux and Nate Thompson, it was their final game in a Sandcrabs uniform.
When the buzzer sounded at Spec Martin Stadium, one team’s players stormed the field. The other’s dropped to their knees and covered their faces in despair. One team celebrated with its fans — high-fiving, hugging, smiling and snapping selfies. The other struggled to overcome the shock of countless practices, 26 grueling games and an otherwise successful season coming to an end in the most brutal way possible.
One team donned gold medals. The other silver.
Both teams cried: Tears of joy. Tears of sadness.
For nearly 47 minutes, the Sandcrabs’ rematch with American Heritage in the Class 3A boys soccer state title game on the night of Saturday, Feb. 23, was shaping up to be a replay of last season’s state final, where regulation wasn’t going to be enough to decide a winner between two incredibly talented teams.
Even after the Patriots scored the first goal of the game — a low, curving ball that slipped past the Sandcrabs’ otherwise steady goal keeper, Cameron Bowling — there wasn’t too much panic among the Sandcrabs.
But with 25:37 to play in regulation, the Patriots scored their second goal. Twelve seconds later, the Sandcrabs’ Benny Hartsell had the ball stolen from him. The Patriots sped down the field and scored again.
“We just lost our heads,” the Sandcrabs' Chase Doucette said. “Our thinking process just went out the window. It was the nail in the coffin.”
The Patriots (17-5-1) defeated Seabreeze 3-0 to win the state title for the second year in a row.
The Sandcrabs’ first-year head coach, Elias Freidus, couldn’t help but feel for his seniors, a group he called “the best he’s ever been around.” Team captains Bowling, Hartsell, Will Crotty, Connor Rioux and Nate Thompson all played their final high school games on Saturday night.
“They’re special kids, and I love them. I feel like they're my own kids,” Freidus said. “Losing like this sucks, and you feel for them. This is crushing for them, and you just want to make it go away — but you can’t.”
He added: “They’re warriors. They don’t like to lose, so this is going to be tough for them. But they’ll get over it when they look at the success that they’ve had.”
Before walking off the field, Thompson was asked how he felt about the past few seasons, where Seabreeze advanced to the state final three straight times, hoisted one championship trophy and won a total of 62 games.
“Just making it here is amazing,” he said. “It’ll be an incredibly memory. I know we lost, but I’m still pretty excited about this.”
But for the underclassmen of this squad, the loss is fuel for next season. Doucette, a sophomore, wasn’t sure if he was going to return to the team the next school year. This season was his first with the Sandcrabs (22-3-1). He was contemplating returning to Jacksonville Armada FC’s Developmental Academy team.
“I’m not going to end my high school days with a loss in the state championship,” he said. “This gives me motivation to come back better, stronger and with more fire in my stomach.”