Throwback rhythm and blues blared from the speakers during Mainland High’s football practice on Thursday, Dec. 8.
The Buccaneers’ 2003 state championship trophy had been wheeled out on a cart and positioned just off the field.
Head coach Travis Roland, the Bucs’ leading tackler on that 2003 team, was on the field, yelling, encouraging, correcting his players.
Mainland was preparing for the Class 3S state championship game against Lake Wales, set for Friday, Dec. 16, in Fort Lauderdale. It is the Bucs’ first state final appearance since they defeated Naples 14-13 19 years ago at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville.
“We're going to face adversity next Friday,” Roland told his players at the end of practice. “But they have not played a football team like us.”
“It’s been 19 years since we’ve been to this point in the playoffs, because we couldn’t get over the fourth round, but we did it, and we’re ready to go and play them and win.”
— AJAI HARRELL
“I’m very excited,” said Ajai Harrell, who has led the Bucs with 11 touchdowns in their four playoff wins. “It’s been 19 years since we’ve been to this point in the playoffs, because we couldn’t get over the fourth round, but we did it, and we’re ready to go and play them and win.”
The Bucs lost in the state semifinals five times from 2004 to 2014. In their first final-four appearance in nine years, they defeated Fort Myers Dunbar, 30-23 on Dec. 2, to reserve a spot in the championship game.
“It’s very exciting being the first team to go back since our head coach, Coach Roland, went there,” right guard Malcolm Curry said. “It feels good. It’s kind of weird, but it feels good.”
LEADING THE WAY
Curry and Harrell have led the way for the Bucs' offense throughout the playoffs.
Curry, the Bucs’ leader on the offensive line, missed six games with a partial ACL tear after injuring his knee in the season opener against DeLand.
“We got a big, huge lift, mentally and physically, when Malcolm came back,” Roland said.
Harrell, a wide receiver, was asked to expand his role heading into the playoffs.
The Bucs had rushed for minus 10-yards in a loss to Lake Mary to end the regular season, and Roland realized they needed to boost their their ground game.
“Coach said, ‘Ajai, I need you to play running back,’” Harrell said. “I said, ‘Sure,’ to help the team. I’m a good athlete, I think, and the coaches prepared me during practice really well, so I’ve been having some good games there.”
Indeed, Harrell has averaged over 202 yards of offense running and receiving in the playoffs. He has scored six rushing touchdowns, four receiving touchdowns and added another score on a punt return in the four playoff games.
“We just had to figure out how to get Ajai the ball more,” Roland said. “Obviously, with Malcolm coming back, and then putting Ajai in the backfield, made the running game open up even more. With Ajai, you can just put the ball in his hands, and he can do great things. I think it also opens things up for (receiver James Randle), because when Ajai’s a running back, (opponents) load the box and James gets one-on-one coverage.”
The Bucs have averaged 208 yards rushing and 202 yards passing since the playoffs started.
“It’s been a happy balance for us since we got Ajai back there,” Roland said.
THE MUSCLE'S BACK
Curry sat out seven weeks, including the bye week. During his final week of rehab, he started getting his confidence back, he said.
“I was doing jump rope, jog around, squats and not feeling (any pain). So, by the last week I felt like myself again,” Curry said.
Roland compared Curry’s return to a big brother coming back home.
“When your big brother moves away, some of the kids may mess with you a little bit,” Roland said. “But when your big brother comes back, they kind of understand, all right, the muscle’s back.”
“We got a big, huge lift, mentally and physically, when Malcolm came back.”
— TRAVIS ROLAND
With Harrell and Jackie Bowdry running behind him, Curry has gotten plenty of chances as a pulling guard to test his knee.
“Malcolm runs a lot of sprints in a game, because we pull him so much, but he’s built for it,” Roland said.
Curry said he and Harrell have played together since they were 9 or 10 years old, and they have good chemistry. Harrell said picking his holes by watching how the linemen are blocking has helped him understand other aspects of the offense.
With Curry back in the fold, Harrell added, the entire offensive line has picked up its intensity.
“The O-line held up when he was gone, because they wanted to play for their captain,” Harrell said. “So, when he came back, it motivated them more, so they played harder, and he played harder.”
Heading into their final game of the year, the Bucs are playing their best football behind their leaders.
“(Linebacker) Ty Richmond is our leading tackler on defense, Ajai, leads us in yards on offense, and then Malcolm is our leader up front in the trenches,” Roland said. “They are our three captains, so it’s by no mistake that their success means our success as a program.”