Travis Roland was Mainland's leading tackler when the Bucs won the Class 5A state football championship in 2003.
Nineteen years later, Roland is again leading the Bucs to the state championship game — this time as the team's head coach. Is the feeling comparable?
"I told the kids, I think it's going to be more satisfying as a coach just because you get to watch your kids celebrate, kind of like being a parent."
— TRAVIS ROLAND
"Oh, I'm honestly not sure if I even know," he said. "It's very nostalgic. I'm glad to be here, you know. I told the kids, I think it's going to be more satisfying as a coach just because you get to watch your kids celebrate, kind of like being a parent."
Mainland overcame a nine-point deficit to defeat host Fort Myers Dunbar 30-23 in a Class 3S state semifinal on Friday, Dec. 3. The Bucs (11-3) will meet Lake Wales (14-0) for the championship at 1 p.m. Friday, Dec. 16, at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale.
Lake Wales entered the playoffs as the third-ranked team in Class 3S, while Mainland was ranked ninth. But the Bucs have saved their best football for the postseason. They've knocked off the teams ranked second (Rockledge), fifth (Jensen Beach) and sixth (Dunbar) in successive weeks.
Ajai Harrell has scored 11 of his 28 touchdowns this season in the past four playoff games. The senior receiver/running back/wildcat quarterback continued his torrid pace with three touchdowns against Dunbar.
"Ajai is Ajai," Roland said. "He's one of the best high school football players in the state of Florida. He's a special player, a very special player. People know we're going to give him the ball. He thrives on making people miss one on one."
Mainland took a 14-0 lead against the Tigers (10-2) on Jackie Bowdry's 40-yard touchdown run and Harrell's 57-yard catch-and-run for a score. But Dunbar scored 23 unanswered points that included a 97-yard interception return by Shawn Russ and a 58-yard touchdown run by T.J. Abrams.
"We had like 283 (yards on offense) to their 105 at the half," Roland said. "So it was kind of disappointing we couldn't punch the ball into the end zone," Roland said.
That changed in the second half. Jacob Gettman booted a 31-yard field goal, and Harrell scored on a 1-yard run to tie the score and a 5-yard run to put the Bucs back on top with three minutes left.
Dunbar blocked the extra point and had a final chance to win or tie the score and send the game to overtime. But the Bucs sacked quarterback Landon Winterbottom twice to force a fourth-and 29. Winterbottom's final pass fell incomplete and Mainland ran out the clock.
"The defense played really, really, really well," Roland said. "I couldn't be more proud of those guys, the way that they played. They battled all game."
Mainland has two weeks to prepare for the title game. Roland was a member of the Bucs' only state championship football team. Now, his players can earn a second championship trophy for the program.
"We know we've got to do a good job getting prepared," Roland said. "We've got to be smart about the bye week and understand that we've got to make sure we handle our business. We just have to continue going the route we've been going, take care of our bodies and be ready to play."