Watching the final seconds of Harrison High School’s football season unfold May 7 stung.
Prior to their tilt in Aurora against Gateway, Harrison was undefeated and curb-stomped Centaurus High School 34-6 in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. They were one game away from the state championship game.
It’s already odd to have football and a postseason during the spring, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the situation at Aurora Public School Stadium became stranger as the contest concluded.
Gateway ran the final seconds off the clock to win 28-21 and celebrated accordingly, because they punched their ticket to the championship game, which Thomas Jefferson won 28-27 on May 14 (for anyone who’s curious.)
While Gateway’s fans and players celebrated the victory, Harrison’s sideline turned melancholy. For the first time since 2019, the Panthers lost a football contest.
Some players shed a few tears; others sat in place or on the bench to process that this marked the season finale — one game shy of their expectations.
That’s what hurt.
In the fall, Harrison and Sierra high school’s athletic directors decided how they’d tweak their sports calendars to navigate the pandemic
The Harrison School District 2 schools opted for spring ball and after watching the opener against then -ranked No. 4 Aurora Central, Harrison clearly had potential to earn a title. I’ve been talking to the team since that decision and have followed their successes this season.
At the time, I remember Kahli Dotison talked about how players discussed a potential championship following their 2019 season and historic run.
But that opportunity ended in Aurora last month after a hard-fought game.
I let coach Rob Leboeuf and co. chat with the team and searched for the perfect words for my interviews in the meantime.
It’s critical to find those perfect words following a loss, let alone one of this magnitude. Most people aren’t eager to speak after defeat, understandably so.
However, this occasion proved to be different as I spoke with Jordan Southerland and Leboeuf.
Southerland, who players and coaches affectionately call “Georgia” since the senior hails from the state, played his tail off.
He had two huge kickoff returns and a big catch to keep a drive alive in the second quarter where the Panthers later scored.
Southerland was also a pest on defense.
He notched an interception in the second quarter, which, two plays later, allowed Davonn Stevens to steamroll defenders on his way to pay dirt.
I asked Southerland how he felt about missing an opportunity to play in the state title game. His response was swift and concise.
“It hurts, but God has a plan for everything,” Southerland said.
There’s no way I’d have that sort of poise after a tough loss, let alone a tilt in the playoffs. But he did and it was incredible to witness.
Before chatting with Southerland, I spoke with Leboeuf who exuded the same energy.
Rather than sulk or talk about how close they were to tying the game, Leboeuf gathered his players after the contest and discussed the bonds they formed.
Then, he highlighted what his team accomplished in the past four years:
Three consecutive league titles; two undefeated regular seasons; a pair of playoff victories – Harrison previously had no postseason victories prior to this senior class – and remaining mentally prepared with all the coronavirus changes.
“Those are things they need to hold their heads up high about. ...To do what we’ve done speaks volumes about their character,” Leboeuf said.
Following those moments with Southerland and Leboeuf as well as watching other players’ interactions, I knew those kids walked away as winners.
Obviously, this squad wanted a championship to conclude their season and leave their stamp in school history. It would have been Harrison’s first-ever football title.
However, just because there’s no trophy at the high school, doesn’t mean Harrison didn’t leave that field victorious.
They left Aurora with lessons they’ll carry throughout their lives. That’s what’s most important.