By Nick Talbot
Killeen Daily Herald
Florence had the lead or was tied in the fourth quarter in nine games last season. The Buffaloes went 3-7.
Marlin, Thorndale and even Cameron Yoe are all games the Buffaloes feel they should have won. And Hearne, Troy and Little River-Academy probably should have been marked in the win column as well.
“There are several that we had the lead (in the fourth quarter),” said junior offensive lineman Luke McNeil. “Against Thorndale we were ahead with 8 minutes left and we had the ball inside the 5(-yard line) three times and couldn’t get it in.”
Junior offensive lineman Christian Gomez added: “Cameron hurt because no one in the district held Cameron down, but we had them 0-0 into the fourth and then they scored, we scored, and they scored again.
“We couldn’t stop them after they got that first touchdown.”
But, the fault did not just lie on the defensive side of the ball.
Against Marlin, quarterback Kaleb Hardy was sacked, and driven into the ground. He left the game with a concussion and Florence’s 14-13 lead turned into a 35-14 loss in the span of a quarter.
“We have been watching games from last year and I wasn’t very good at all,” McNeil said. “As a whole you could tell we were not really clicking as a unit.”
This season, the offensive line is determined to not let a lack of mental toughness play a factor in its season.
“We have to keep up the morale of everyone else on the field,” Navarro said. “We want to play 48 minutes at the least, not 38 or 39.”
Instead, they plan to rely on experience.
“It feels a lot more natural, it is like we are not starting from scratch,” Gomez said. “We have more trust and we can rely on each other and not worry about the little stuff that messes it up.”
Gomez has started on the varsity since he was a freshman and McNeil and Navarro were plugged in as sophomores. Initially, the unit struggled to find cohesion, especially late in the game when the pressure was mounting.
But now the unit, dominated by the juniors, will play a key role in whether Florence can make the playoffs for the first time since 2001 — also the last season the Buffaloes had a winning record.
“That year of experience and playing together with another year in the program (is huge),” said Florence coach Paul Smith. “I am real excited about our offensive line. Coach (Beau) Barksdale does a great job with those guys and they are big and they have been together.”
The season, though, could get even more complicated if Florence is forced to play part of its season on the road. Stage 5 water restrictions left the school district unable to water its playing fields since the summer began.
As a result, Stampede Stadium’s playing surface isn’t soft enough to host games — not without risking concussions and other serious injuries.
“(Playing the season on the road) is kind of scary, but we have to look at it as a challenge to overcome adversity,” McNeil said.
Gomez, though, sees it as a challenge.
“It is a chance to know we can win on the road. It is more of a challenge than anything,” he said.
McNeil added: “Coach Smith said he wants Billy Bob Thornton to play him when they make a movie about us after we make the playoffs.”