Cougars cherish championship journey

Cougars cherish championship journey

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Cougars cherish championship journey

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The words sounded just as sweet the morning after for Godby High football coach Ronnie Cottrell.

“Yes, we are state champions,” Cottrell answered. “How about that?”

Since winning the Class 5A state title Friday afternoon in Orlando’s Citrus Bowl, Cottrell and his Cougars have had no shortage of opportunities to bask in the glow of their accomplishment.

But the on-field celebration and the locker-room dance party that followed also gave way to a show of respect for their opponents in Orlando.

Three Godby assistant coaches – receivers coach Jesse Forbes, offensive backs coach Joe Labrador and assistant head coach Cleon McFarlane – are the only holdovers from the 2008 team that lost to Cocoa in the Class 2A state championship.

That championship dream ended when the Cougars had an extra-point attempt blocked in overtime.

On Friday, Godby hoisted the championship trophy after Immokalee botched the snap on an extra-point attempt that could have tied the game at 21-21 with no time left.

As the Cougars sideline erupted in celebration, Forbes said he couldn’t help but feel badly for how it ended for the Indians.

“I know how Immokalee feels because we lost that game 7-6 on a (blocked kick),” Forbes said. “Our guys felt the same way they do. My heart goes out to Immokalee and their players and coaching staff and their fans. But we won it tonight. It was our night. It was a great win for Godby. It was a great win for Tallahassee.”

After the on-field trophy and medals presentation was over, the Cougars retreated to the visitor’s locker room at the Citrus Bowl for an amazing, and unscripted, celebration scene.

Players danced and bounced off one another in the middle of the room. A handful of them posed for photos with Cottrell and the championship trophy. The assistant coaches showed a little more restraint as they changed clothes to prepare for the drive back to Tallahassee.

Labrador grabbed a marker and left a note on the dry-erase board in the locker room, a message for the Lincoln High Trojans who would use the same facility for their Class 7A title game later that night.

“One down, one to go,” the message said.

The Cougars were unable to stick around for Lincoln’s game, but they made sure to wish their neighbors well before leaving Orlando.

The bus drivers that were assigned to deliver both Godby and Lincoln to the game coordinated efforts so that the two teams could meet in the main entry to the Citrus Bowl.

Traffic in both directions was forced to stop and wait as the Godby players exited their bus so they circle the Trojans’ bus and applaud the Lincoln players.

Cottrell boarded his rivals’ bus and shook hands with Lincoln coach Yusuf Shakir to wish his team luck for the game.

“It was very considerate,” Shakir said.

“We are opponents (regular season) but when you play somebody else in that setting, you are always rooting for each other. You want each other to be successful; it builds your community.”

Once back on the road to Tallahassee, the Cougars had a chance to begin reflecting on the journey that led them to the 2012 Class 5A state championship.

The Godby coaches started by praising Cottrell, who took over the program in 2010 after replacing Shelton Crews – who had been a fixture on campus since his days as an assistant coach for Art Witters.

Crews was a part of two state championship teams at Godby and had helped create a program that was a consistent winner. But the transition from Crews to Cottrell wasn’t exactly smooth as the Cougars struggled in that first season to adapt to a new coaching staff.

Forbes, Labrador and McFarlane remained as the only holdovers from the previous staff at the start of the 2011 season. By then, Cottrell had hired defensive coordinator Brian Williams and offensive coordinator Scott Scharinger as well as assistant coaches Logan Carr (linebackers), Wayne Longley (offense quality control), Vernon Wilder (linebackers), Courtney Williams (running backs) and Jeremiah Wilson (defensive backs). Cody Slate was added as a tight ends coach this season.

But, thanks to Cottrell’s constant focus on staff chemistry, the new coaches blended perfectly with the veterans.

“I’m happy for Coach Forbes, Cleon McFarlane and Joe Labrador – guys who had been Godby Cougars before we got here,” Brian Williams said. “They welcomed us with open arms when Coach Cottrell brought us in here. They are so deserving of this. All of our guys are deserving. I’m just so happy for them and for Godby.”

Long after the photos were taken with the championship trophy, the Cougars were still left shaking their heads at how close their celebration was nearly ruined in the chaotic final plays of the game.

McFarlane, who serves as the offensive line coach, said he was shell-shocked as he watched Immokalee drive down the field in the closing seconds.

“I was standing there on the sideline and I couldn’t really move,” McFarlane said. “I was remembering 2008 and how we lost that game. All kind of emotions came running back. I had all kind of things going through my head in those final seconds. I’m thinking, ‘How can we blow this?'”

But McFarlane didn’t have to ask that question again. Immokalee quarterback Tshumbi Johnson, the holder on the extra-point attempt, was smothered as he scrambled to find an open receiver and the incomplete pass ignited Godby’s celebration.

Wilder, who also coaches the special-teams units, deserves a big chunk of the credit for that defensive play on the conversion attempt. He raced up and down the sideline after Immokalee scored on the game’s final play to tell his players, “Don’t worry about it. It’s OK. We’re going to block the kick. We’re going to block the kick.”

Afterward, Wilder said he had “absolute faith” that his kids would deliver a play to seal the victory.

“I knew we were still up and had an opportunity to make a play and they made a play,” Wilder said. “The old term is ‘ball don’t lie.’ The kids wanted it and worked for it. They deserved it and they got it.”

And now the Cougars wake up today as state champions — and with a new set of challenges.

Forbes said he hopes the players will learn as much from winning this title as his former players did from losing in 2008.

“That’s the way sports are,” Forbes said. “Somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose. Somebody is going to have the glory and somebody is going to end up being sad. But it’s what you learn from winning and losing — and that is what will take you a long way in life.”

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