With his team ahead 33-0 against Winter Springs on Friday, Nov. 3, Matanzas football coach Matt Forrest took his seniors out of the game one by one. Each senior received an ovation as he walked to the sideline and hugged his teammates and coaches.
The Pirates defeated the Bears 33-0 on senior night to improve to 7-3. They received the seventh seed in the Class 3S, Region 1 playoffs and will travel to No. 2 Tallahassee Lincoln (8-2) on Friday, Nov. 10 for a 7:30 p.m. game.
If Matanzas wins, it will again be on the road in the second round on Nov. 17 against either No. 3 seed Fort Walton Beach Chotawhatchee or No. 6 Lake City Columbia.
The Pirates' regular-season finale on Nov. 3 was likely the 13 seniors’ final game on their home field.
Jordan Mills, who ran 19 yards for a touchdown on a forward flip pass, said the end-of-the-line feeling hit him when the Pirates called timeout and Forrest hugged the seniors as they trotted off.
“It was like, this is it. It’s time for these younger guys to show that they can ball too,” Mills said. “These guys that I've been with for four years, the relationships that have grown, it's just a very bittersweet mix of emotions. I'm very happy, but, man, I’m going to miss it.”
The night started with the seniors involved on game days — members of the band and flag corps, cheer squad members, athletic trainer aides, Junior ROTC cadets, the football team and the Pirate mascot — honored with their parents before the game.
Perhaps because of the pregame activities, the first half of the game lacked energy as the Pirates took a 13-0 lead against the winless Bears (0-10).
“I knew we could play better,” said Cole Hash, a four-year starter and standout on both sides of the ball. “I came (into the locker room) and I just told them, we have worked hard, us seniors, to build this foundation — four years of literally blood, sweat and tears — and we’re not going out unless we have a big win. I told those guys, ‘I love every one of you. It’s not over yet; we have a playoff run to make. But let’s go out there and let’s demolish.’ Everybody was excited to get back out there and just play some good football.”
The Pirates scored on three straight possessions in the second half. Mills scored his touchdown, followed by quarterback Dakwon Evans hitting Ladarian Baker with a 7-yard touchdown pass and Hash scoring on a 9-yard run.
“That was one of the things I really wanted,” Hash said. “I really wanted that (touchdown).”
Evans threw three touchdown passes, including the forward flip to Mills and a 4-yard toss to senior Andre Andrews. Landon Grover kicked two field goals of 45 and 31 yards. But what impressed Forrest most about his senior kicker in the game was a punt.
“The punt he had at the end of the game into the wind that went 40 yards was unbelievable,” Forrest said.
Grover kicked a school-record 54-yard field goal at Tocoi Creek on Sept. 1 and had a chance to break that record with a 55-yarder in the fourth quarter against Winter Springs, but he never got the chance after the snap was bobbled and picked up.
“We had all the confidence in the world to put him out there at 55 yards and let him kick,” Forrest said. “Those guys come up big in big games. He's been doing it ever since he's been here. He was big in the win against Gainesville last year (three field goals, two from 42 yards), and he was big in the win against Tocoi Creek this year.”
Sho’Marion Gaines and Mason Obama each intercepted a pass against the Bears, and Hash and defensive end Zach O’Gwynn wreaked havoc in the Bears’ backfield.
Forrest said the offense did a better job in this game of taking care of the ball and sustaining drives.
“I feel like on defense we eliminated the big play and made them drive, and to Winter Springs’ credit, they made us drive," Forrest said. "They made us take a lot of underneath throws and run the ball. We had to run our offense and execute. I think that was something that's been lacking over the last three, four weeks, just straight execution."
These guys that I've been with for four years, the relationships that have grown, it's just very bittersweet with mixed emotions. I'm very happy, but, man, I’m going to miss it.”
— JORDAN MILLS
The Pirates made the playoffs for the first time since the current seniors were freshmen in 2020. Matanzas' 7-3 record is its best since 2016. Forrest said the senior class deserves a lot of credit for turning the program around.
“Those guys have done a lot for our football program,” he said. “I think they got the ovation and the send-off that they needed from the home crowd. I'm very proud of those guys.”
UPS AND DOWNS
Hash, Mills, Evans, Gaines and lineman Ahmad Louis-Charles have been stalwarts since they joined the program. Those five played 8-on-8 football together as eighth graders, Hash said.
“We were all 13 to14. That’s when we first started,” he said. “Ahmad, me and Jordan knew we were coming to Matanzas. We were trying to convince the other two not to become Bulldogs, and we did. ”
After suffering a 14-12 loss to Pedro Menendez on Oct. 27, Gaines said the players tightened their bond with each other.
“We came together,” he said. “Our brotherhood is really there now. That’s what we needed. It’s good to see that all the work we put in is paying off.”
Mills and Hash said the senior class has experienced a lot of ups and downs. After making the playoffs in 2020 and finishing with a 6-4 record, they went 3-7 as sophomores and finished 5-5 last year with the help of a forfeit.
“I’m just so grateful,” Mills said. “I went up to all the coaches and I thanked them all. They've been here with me, loved me and trusted me. It’s just crazy seeing it come to an end. High school goes by really fast and I'm just grateful that I had this time with my brothers that I've been here with for four years, staying until the end.”
It’s been super special for me to watch (Sho'Marion Gaines) grow these four years. Watching all of these guys grow, it’s been the ride of a lifetime.”
— COLE HASH
Gaines said what he’ll miss most is having his teammates by his side.
“All the seniors were always one call away,” he said. “No matter where I was, what I needed, they would always come get me. That's what I’ll really miss.”
Hash said watching Gaines grow into the man he is has been rewarding.
“It’s been super special for me to watch Sho grow these four years,” he said. “Watching all of these guys grow, it’s been the ride of a lifetime. We’ve been through thick and thin, back and forth with each other and at each other's throats. But it's just because we're all passionate. We love the game, we love each other and we know that we wouldn't accept anything less than excellence.”