Travis Roland was not altogether happy with his first season as Mainland High School's football coach last year. The Bucs lost five games and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Roland wanted to get the Bucs back to playing Mainland football.
Mainland thumped Jensen Beach 45-10 on the road in the Region 3-3S final on Friday, Nov. 25, to advance to the state semifinals for the first time since 2014.
"It was awesome. It feels amazing for us to get ourselves one step away (from the championship game) and to know that in our classification, we're one of four teams still playing. A lot of people started off playing, and now it's down to four."
— TRAVIS ROLAND, Mainland football coach
"It was awesome. It feels amazing for us to get ourselves one step away (from the championship game) and to know that in our classification, we're one of four teams still playing," Roland said. "A lot of people started off playing, and now it's down to four."
The Bucs (10-3) will travel for the third week in a row on Friday, Dec. 2, to take on Fort Myers Dunbar (10-1). Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. The winner will play Lake City Columbia or Lake Wales in the Class 3S title game in Fort Lauderdale the weekend of Dec. 15-17.
Senior Ajai Harrell scored four touchdowns at Jensen Beach to give him 11 in the past five games and 25 for the season.
"Ajai is making himself one of the greatest we've ever seen," Roland said. "He's putting himself in that crazy, crazy crazy upper stratosphere of Mainland football greats that play on the offensive side of the ball. I'm just proud of him. He's the guy that sets the tone for us all the time with his leadership in the weight room, in the classroom and practice and conditioning."
Harrell set the tone against the Falcons, returning the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. He went on to score three rushing touchdowns, including an 89-yard dash to put the Bucs up 16-0. Harrell now has 12 rushing touchdowns and 12 receiving touchdowns and one return for a score.
"The energy was there from the beginning," Roland said. "And (Harrell's kickoff return) just made the energy go through the roof."
Roland said using Harrell at both wide receiver and running back has helped the senior's production as well as that of Mainland's other elite receiver, James Randle.
"Now is the time we want to make sure our best players are getting the ball," Roland said. "I think we're able to get Ajai and James and ball in different ways, because when Ajai's at running back, our running game goes up to a different level. And that makes (defenses) have to load the box, and now James is getting one on ones. And we all know that James is very difficult to handle one on one."
Randle caught a 59-yard touchdown pass from Damarcus Creecy with two seconds left in the first half to give Mainland a commanding 30-10 lead. Harrell's second touchdown run of the third quarter forced a running clock the rest of the way. The Bucs' 35-point margin of victory was their second largest of the season.
"We were able to put together a complete game. I think it was probably our best defensive performance of the year," Roland said. "(Defensive lineman) Ramon McCollough had three sacks and a forced fumble. His play over the last month or six weeks has just been astronomically amazing."
Dunbar upset Naples 14-7 to advance to the state semifinals for the first time in school history. The Tigers held Naples' vaunted running attack to 145 yards.
"They've really got some athletes. They're a school that traditionally flies around and plays with a lot of energy, so we've got to match that," Roland said. "I'm sure their place is going to be rocking, because they're the only guys in town that will be playing. So we've got to be prepared to match the energy that they're going to bring."
Roland played on Mainland's only state championship team in 2003. Now the Bucs are two wins away from adding a second title to the school's record book.
"Everybody sets out to win a state championship. And you always talk about how hard you're going to work," Roland said. "And so, I think for these kids to see that they can dedicate themselves to a goal and see it come to fruition, it makes all the hard work worth it."