TALLAHASSEE — Three scores were scored in 33 seconds at the top of the fourth quarter.
Kickstarted by a 65-yard gallop from Tallahassee Rickards’ senior De’Andre Francis, the Raiders’ 5-foot-6, 165-pound running back, Rickards punched in a two-yard score with a quarterback sneak coming from a Michael Townsend carry. With the touchdown and extra point, Rickards led the visiting Dunnellon Tigers 20-12 with 9:40 left in the game.
With so much on the line and the winning team advancing to the state championship, the undefeated Tigers knew they had to answer the call. However, no one would have guessed they’d pick up the phone so early.
Dunnellon senior Demetrius McCants collected the kickoff near the 15-yard line before pinballing through the chaos for an 85-yard kickoff return touchdown. Following the score, however, Dunnellon would fail to convert the two-point conversion, allowing Rickards to maintain a two-point advantage.
Fortunately for the Tigers, it appeared as though the momentum had swung in their favor. McCants’ marathon-of-a-score had the Dunnellon sideline alive.
However, Dunnellon’s excitement would quickly vanish as the Rickards’ offense took the field and Francis took off for another 65-yard rush. This one, though, for a touchdown.
Making the way once more for Francis was the Raiders’ offensive line – an offensive line constructed of living, breathing giants.
Seniors Darius Glee and Christopher Williams play on either side of the center, and together weigh 680 pounds. Glee and Williams’ size alone made it near impossible for the Tigers to defend. Let alone the fact that the two offensive linemen were talented, too.
“We needed to get a couple more stops on defense and we didn’t,” Dunnellon head coach Price Harris said. “And that’s hats off to Rickards, they do a good job there. We knew it was going to be a struggle with their line so big and just monstrous. So we knew we were going to have a problem there.”
Following Francis’ second score in the fourth quarter, Harris had ripped off his headset in disbelief. Nonetheless, there was still 9:07 left in the game. And after Dunnellon blocked the extra point, the Tigers were down just eight points, meaning it was still a one-possession ballgame.
Orchestrating a drive from their own 30-yard line, the Tigers’ offense began to quickly chip away at yardage.
Senior athlete Christiaan Fashaw ignited the drive with a 30-yard rush to get Dunnellon into Rickards’ territory.
A clutch 16-yard pass from junior quarterback Trent Townsend to senior receiver Shai’hem Thomas kept Dunnellon’s drive alive, converting on fourth down.
However, after getting down to the 10-yard line, Townsend tossed an interception to Rickards’ Trevon Riles in the end zone.
Fortunately, the Dunnellon defense, which has been surefooted all year, forced a quick fourth and long situation and made the Raiders punt the football back to the Tigers with 2:55 to play.
Dealt a short field, all that stood between the Tigers and a chance to tie was 42 yards and a two-point conversion.
Showing poise and leadership, Townsend rebounded quickly after the interception and tossed a 30-yard pass to McCants, helping the Tigers down to the 12-yard line.
Following the big connection, Dunnellon’s junior quarterback dished another pass to Christiaan Fashaw — this one good for a touchdown.
“He’s been a tremendous quarterback for three years,” Harris said of Townsend. “The kid is a three-year starter and he’s been to two Final Fours. He makes the plays when he needs to make the plays. We were one play short tonight.”
Before the much anticipated two-point conversion, the Tigers were hit with three delay of game penalties before the Raiders were issued a pass interference. But a false start against Dunnellon would back the offense up once more before the play finally got underway.
From the 13-yard line, Townsend lofted a jump ball to junior LJ Fitzpatrick in the back right corner of the end zone. Fitzpatrick battled for the ball with Rickards’ senior Kameron Bell, but Bell eventually came down with his second interception of the evening, with this one coming in game-saving fashion.
Rickards would go on to punch its ticket to the first state championship appearance in school history. Meanwhile, with the 26-24 loss, Dunnellon would finish its season 10-1.
Dunnellon’s roster shows that it will graduate 20 seniors, making for a big loss for Harris and the Tigers’ program. However, this senior class made the most of its time in red and black. Together, these seniors went 36-12 and took the Tigers’ to two final four appearances in three years.
“We talk all the time about leaving a legacy,” a choked-up Harris said. “We talk about that every year. And this group of seniors leaves a legacy behind that’s pretty special. They started as sophomores and got us to a Final Four. And then they finish their career in the Final Four, two points shy of going to a state championship game. Not a lot of people can say that.
“You can’t take anything away from what these seniors have accomplished. The things that they had to go through this year, you know, they had to be road warriors… they had no playoff games at home all year. You know, I was really proud of the way that they battled. You know, they proved it each and every week and just a little bit short this week.”