As retired NBA great Vince Carter and his friend, Mainland boys basketball coach Joe Giddens, played catch on the sidelines during halftime of the Region 3-3S semifinal football game, Buccaneers’ head coach Travis Roland was in the locker room delivering a speech.
Following a blocked field goal attempt and an 82-yard touchdown return by Rockledge’s Jaylen Heyward in the second quarter, Mainland was down 7-0. The vibe in the locker room was somber as Roland addressed his players.
“Fix it (your faces) — it’s a long game,” he said. “You’ve got to deal with adversity. OK, it’s the first half, but it’s a two-half game. It’s the first quarter, the second quarter, the third, the fourth and sometimes overtime. You’ve got to move on every single time. That’s the biggest part — to continue to show resilience.”
The Bucs (11-1) went on to win 22-14 and will host Sebring (9-2) in the regional final on Friday, Nov. 24.
The Rockledge Raiders went into the game on Nov. 17 at Daytona Stadium with a deceptive 6-5 record. Roland said they had one of the toughest schedules in their classification and it showed. The Raiders lost to district champs Eau Gallie, fourth-ranked Cocoa and 10th-ranked Seminole. They also lost to the 15th-ranked Texas team — Duncanville.
Mainland, ranked 16th in the state over all classifications, beat Rockledge 16-14 in the 2022 playoffs.
“We knew they wanted to come and beat us and get revenge,” Roland said.
Rockledge’s defense tamped down on quarterback Dennis Murray Jr.’s rushing game in the first half. J.J. Silberzahn sacked Murray in the first quarter and Murray did not have a completion until the second quarter when he connected with Freddie Wilson on a 21-yard gain. Mainland kept doggedly returning to the red zone only to have a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown return and a 36-yard attempt strike the goal post.
Murray said Rockledge wanted to show it was a tough team because everybody was doubting the Raiders' abilities coming in to the game.
“I think that given the situation that happened last year, they were just out to get us,” Murray said. “They came out and played hard enough in the beginning that we weren’t ready for how aggressive they were coming. We fixed it and just kept our heads on a swivel. We didn’t break down when stuff wasn’t necessarily going our way.”
He said the turning point of the game for him came after halftime when Marquis McCants caught a 13-yard touchdown pass following a 31-yard kickoff return by Elyjah Gilyard. At that point, he said, everybody began to gel as a team.
“Defense just came out and did what they had to do,” Murray said. “Then everybody started playing their role — playing for the team. I was really proud of them. I try to get better (at passing) each and every weekend. I just have to put trust in my receivers that they are going to make plays and today they did just that. Shout out to Tyree Weatherspoon. He made plays when we needed them the most.”
Rockledge went on to score in the third quarter with a touchdown pass from quarterback Traven Green to Heyward. The score remained unanswered until the fourth quarter when Murray threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Clarence McCloud which was followed up with a 2-point conversion run by Rodney Hill.
“I was a nervous wreck,” said Daytona Beach Pop Warner football commissioner Thomas Roland, who is also the head coach's father. “That game there had me nervous, but after that 2-point conversion we made, I knew we were ready to go.”
Mainland’s last touchdown came after defensive end L.J. McCray forced a fumble that was recovered by linebacker Dennis King III. The Buccaneers set up on Rockledge’s 5-yard line after a brawl broke out and the Raiders were flagged for a personal foul. Hill ran the ball in for a 4-yard touchdown.
Sebring beat Eau Gallie 21-12 in the other semifinal game after crushing Westwood 48-0 in the first round of the playoffs. The Blue Streaks have won seven in a row.
“We are just thankful that we are in the third round,” Travis Roland said. “Thanksgiving football is the greatest time ever in all high school sports. Daytona Beach Mainland alumni — we need you. Everybody will be back for the (Florida) Classic (in Orlando). Don’t go back to your respective homes if you’re coming from out of town. Stay here until Saturday so you can come to this game and be screaming and be loud on Friday.”