ORLANDO – Southridge was staring defeat in the face Saturday night.
Despite stout play from their defense, the Spartans offense was sputtering. Trailing by 10 points into the fourth quarter; then down by four with just under five minutes to play while standing on their 28-yard line, Southridge could’ve given in.
But junior wide receiver Mark Pope wasn’t going to let his team lose.
Pope used his elite speed to get behind his defender and junior quarterback Michael Cox lofted a pass to the left side of the field and connected with Pope in stride, allowing him to dash into the endzone and give Southridge its first lead of the night.
The Pope touchdown followed by the ensuing two-point conversion pass to Jordan Dillard gave Southridge a 14-10 lead over Orlando Dr. Phillips and completed a remarkable rally that earned the Spartans the Class 8A state championship Saturday in Orlando Camping World Stadium.
After taking the 14-10 lead, there was still 4:20 left on the clock and Southridge’s defense had to come up with one last stop to seal the game.
The Panthers were able to drive down to the Spartans’ 22-yard line with just over a minute to play. After two short runs and an incomplete pass, Dr. Phillips tried to convert a fourth down play to keep its drive alive, but junior defensive end James Head got pressure on Dr. Phillips’ Marvin Washington and forced him to throw an incomplete pass – turning the ball over on down and sealing the state title for Southridge.
Pope said as soon as he saw the ball in the air, he knew he was going to make a big play.
“As soon as I saw, I knew it was mine…anything in the air was going to be mine,” Pope said. “We made some adjustments at halftime, got fired up, and came out in the second half to keep fighting. This win is big for our community. It’s going to stop all the shooting and make the community better.”
The Spartans (12-2) ended a 23-year championship drought Saturday night. Southridge won a Class 5A title in 1993 under Don Soldinger. The program made appearances in state championship games in 1994 and 1999, but never got past the regional final in all of its subsequent postseason appearances – up until this season.
Southridge veteran head coach Billy Rolle said he was cool, calm and collected on the sideline throughout because he had experienced similar situations before.
“I’ve been around a lot of miraculous situations,” said Rolle, who was likely referring to a 1998 state semifinal game where Miami Northwestern rallied back to defeat rival Miami Jackson in the Orange Bowl. “I’ve seen it before – so I know miraculous things can happen.”
“I told the guys in the locker room, ‘don’t give up, not matter, fight until the end, don’t give up’. We kept [Dr. Phillips] in striking distance. It was tough because they had a great game plan. Once they got the lead, they tried just run the clock out…they were just trying to pound us up front. But we kept them in striking distance and the defense fighting.”
Rolle was able to etch his name in the state history books Saturday. With the victory, Rolle became the first coach in the state’s history to lead three different programs to state championships. He won a pair of titles at Northwestern (1998 & 2007), one at Killian (2004), and led the Spartans to a title Saturday.
“Once people started talking about it, I did say to myself ‘that would be a nice little accomplishment’. Then the players started reading about it and they wanted it for me,” said Rolle, who many of his Southridge players weren’t even alive when he won his first state title. “I haven’t put it into perspective just quite yet, but I know that I’ve been blessed to work with great people along the way and have a lot of great players.”
Dr. Phillips, which has now lost its last two state championship games to Miami-Dade County teams after holding leads, built its 10-point lead with a strong second quarter.
After playing through a scoreless first quarter, the Panthers broke the seal on the game with a 44-yard Sterling Stockwell field goal. Then, right before halftime, Dr. Phillips went on a 14-play, 55-yard drive – which was capped by an Emare Hogan 5-yard touchdown run through the middle of the Southridge defense.
Like Rolle said, Dr. Phillips looked content just running the ball after it led 10-0. The Panthers ended running the ball 44 times Saturday for 186 yards. D.J. Charles led for Dr. Phillips with 94 yards.
The Spartans’ first score of the night was set up by their defense. Southridge forced a fumble as the Panthers were marching down into Spartans territory – allowing its offense to go on a 14-play, 67-yard drive which was capped by an 8-yard Cox pass to Dillard.
Cox finished the game 9-of-20 for 155 yards with the two scores and an interception. Pope ended up with tied for a team-high three receptions for 91 yards. Rodney Scott also caught three passes for 12 yards.
Antwan Collier ended up leading Southridge in rushing with 32 yards. Senior running back Bentavius Thompson left the game in the first half and was taken to an area hospital with a collarbone injury. Courtney Reese added 25 rushing yards and Cox rushed for 23 yards.