Xavier Fernandez walked over to the bench and slammed his helmet against it. His frustration had hit its limit and then emotion took over.
Navarre’s energetic and talented senior linebacker fought back tears as best as he could as the painful reality of a 35-14 loss to Lake Gibson in a 6A state semifinal sunk in Friday night at Bennett C. Russell Stadium.
Inside a somber locker room after the game, after the players gathered around their head coach, Jay Walls, to listen to his post-game speech, Fernandez was calmer and quietly talked about the feelings no words could ever begin to describe.
“It’s disappointing,” Fernandez said. “We put in a lot of hard work this year.”
So often this season effort was enough. Talent was enough. The Raiders (12-2) fed off both to reach the state semifinals for the second time in program history.
They felt as if this was their year but the dream of playing for a state championship next week in Orlando slipped further and further away as the second half wore on.
Navarre couldn’t sustain consistency on offense and the defense struggled to get the stops it came up with in the first half to keep the Raiders in a 7-7 tie with the Braves (13-0) at halftime.
And then there were the countless flags that were thrown throughout the night. At times it seemed like every other play the Raiders ran ended in a penalty. Emotion eventually reached a boiling point because of it.
With just under two minutes to go, a penalty flag was thrown and it was picked up and thrown into the air by Josh Carter. Two other defensive players threw flags as well, resulting in three unsportsmanlike penalties.
“We’re disappointed in the loss,” Walls said. “Disappointed because we made some mistakes in the second half that really hurt us. But credit Lake Gibson. They are a great team.”
Navarre isn’t a bad team either, even if the season didn’t end the way it hoped it would.
Walls, surrounded by his family as he did his post-game interview on the field — he even took time to hug his grandchild — said despite the ending, he is proud of his team.
“We were in the ballgame at halftime and felt like we had a great shot to win,” Walls said. “The kids played really hard. We had a great season. Our guys have been outstanding all year. They did everything we asked them to and then some. I’m proud of them.”
Navarre has every reason to be proud of its success. The Raiders were the last big school team standing out of the Panhandle, and after three consecutive playoff road wins, they were back at home and eager to punch a ticket to their first state title game in program history.
Fans began lining up outside the stadium two hours before kickoff and more than 2,000 fans crammed into the stadium in the hopes of witnessing history on a chilly December night.
Navarre fell behind 7-0 early in the opening quarter but the defense kept the Raiders in the game, denying other scoring opportunities for the Braves along the way thanks to constant pressure and a relentless effort to swarm to the ball.
The Raiders finally cashed in with just over two minutes to play in the first as Michael Carter, the elusive and determined running back who will play college football at North Carolina, broke free for a 56-yard TD run down the left sideline that tied the score at 7-7.
Fans went crazy and were showered with confetti and silly string as the Raiders struck back against a Braves team that had recorded four shutouts this season.
Navarre nearly scored again just before halftime. Carter caught a pass from Caine Adamson at the 45 and ran 25 yards before getting tackled as the final seconds ran off the first-half clock.
Lake Gibson dominated the second half, scoring 22 unanswered points to take a 29-7 lead. Travell Jones scored three times on rushing TDs in the final two quarters to seal the deal.
Dante Wright’s electrifying 75-yard kickoff return served as the Raiders’ only points of the second half. Wright weaved through the Lake Gibson defense for the score just as many Navarre fans were beginning to file out of the stadium.
By the end of the night, the fans who did stick around stood and cheered as the Raiders walked off the field hurt and frustrated. Adamson, the starting quarterback, had his arm in a sling from an injury he suffered in the third, another example of just how tough this night was for Navarre.
All year the goal was to win a state title, the Raiders driven by the unfinished business they felt they had after having a perfect regular season wiped out last season in an opening-round playoff loss to Tate.
Navarre went further this year but not far enough.
“When you are this close to winning it all it hurts,” said Carter, a senior who leaves as arguably the greatest running back in school history. “We don’t have anything to be disappointed in. We fought until the end.”