Going into Friday night’s game against Apopka, the Warriors were underdogs — then, a call changed everything.
Standing on the sidelines with the weight of a program balancing on his shoulders, West Orange head football coach Mike Granato watched as Apopka struck with ease on its second play of overtime — a 3-yard run by Javen Robinson.
The following extra point split the uprights, and all of a sudden, Granato’s team was down 14-7 — the Warriors’ first deficit of the night — against a mighty opponent and in desperate need of a touchdown.
After being stifled for most of regulation, the Warriors offense took the field and scored with an immediacy that even Granato wasn’t expecting — on a play that hadn’t worked all season.
“We had tried to run the reverse a couple of times this year, and it didn’t work out for whatever reason — whether we missed a block or read the block wrong,” Granato said. “Where I come from, at the end of the day, when the game is on the line, you want to put the ball in the best player’s hands. I knew at some point, whether it was three plays or four plays, that we were trying to get (Matthew McDoom) or Jayden Gibson the football.
“I didn’t think the reverse would score a touchdown on the first play — I thought it would give us at least 5 or 6 yards — but we got a nice block on the outside, and he was able to outrun one of their defenders,” he said. “If you watch the play, Jack Main is blocking their corner and doing a phenomenal job and really sets it up from being just a 6- or 7-yard gain to (giving) Matthew an opportunity to score.”
The 10-yard touchdown run by McDoom was enough to get the Warriors to within a point at 14-13. Just as the team had a moment to celebrate the score, a decision needed to be made: Do you go for two and the win? Or play it more conservative and kick the extra point?
The decision was easy given how the game had played out up to this point, Granato said. The only time the Warriors managed to score in regulation was on a 51-yard bomb from quarterback Tyler Huff to Main to give West Orange the 7-0 lead with a little more than two minutes before the break.
Meanwhile, the only score for Apopka came off a botched handoff that saw the ball tumble into the end zone before being recovered by Apopka senior defensive end Devin Barnes to help tie the game at 7-7 with 6:23 left in regulation.
Throw in the constant harassment the Blue Darters put the Warriors’ special teams through — which included what would have been a game-winning field goal late in the fourth quarter — and a Warriors’ defense that was absolutely gassed by overtime, and the decision to go for two and the win was easy.
“For me it was a no-brainer,” Granato said. “We had a play that we put in that week that we thought could possibly catch them off guard.
“(Apopka) called timeout when they saw us line up, and I asked the kids, ‘Do you guys want to go for the win, or do you want to keep going?’” he said. “And Matthew McDoom looked at me with nothing but love in his eyes and he said, ‘Coach, let’s do it — I believe in my heart we have it, coach.’”
What followed was an athletic McDoom scrambling around in the backfield after getting the handoff — distracting an entire defense that brought an all-out blitz for the first time all night. He then tossed the ball to a wide-open Huff, who stood all alone in the end zone.
Ball game: West Orange beats the seemingly unbeatable Blue Darters 15-14 in a game that defined a new era of Warriors football.
After the past few years of constant obstacles — including multiple coaching changes — and a general dysfunction that had plagued the program, things now feel much different in the locker room and on the field. No one has seen that change more so than Granato and his staff, and it’s the trust and love for one another that has turned around a once-struggling program.
“I could never have dreamed to have the kind of success that we have had,” Granato said. “We told the kids right before that last play — I looked them right in the eye — and I said, ‘Win or lose, I love you. You’ve changed the atmosphere around here, I know that you guys love each other, and that means more to me than anything that happens over the next couple of seconds, so you might as well go out and win it, because I’m going to love you no matter what.’”