It took months for Fred Billy to finally cue up the game film from his worst performance of the year. A dud against Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference championship game during the third week of November ended the best season in Saint Stephen’s history on a sour note and the Falcons’ sophomore quarterback couldn’t bear to look back on the 33-point blowout. He needed time to let the initial memories fade.
A few months later — he can’t remember the exact day — Billy pulled up the film on a computer at home and called Brion Carnes, his quarterbacks coach last fall who was in Des Moines playing for the Iowa Barnstormers of the Indoor Football League. About 24 minutes in, Billy reached halftime and the play that brings back the worst memories.
As the clock ticked down on the first half, Saint Stephen’s walked to the line near midfield. Billy’s big-play sensibilities got the best of him. He looked for the end zone, throwing an interception near the 25-yard line. Santa Fe Catholic ran it back for a touchdown. The Falcons’ six-point halftime deficit turned into a 13-point hole.
“I was trying to do too much. I should’ve kept it,” Billy said. “It was hard to watch that game.”
Less than 10 months later, Saint Stephen’s will get its chance at some sort of redemption when it welcomes Santa Fe to Moore Athletic Complex at Turner Fields on Friday at 7 p.m. Saint Stephen’s (0-1) has lost three in a row to the Hawks (0-1), but only last year’s Florida Bowl was a blowout. The mistakes that cost the Falcons their first championship, they hope, were just a fluke.
We was just embarrassed. We know we didn’t come prepared.
Fred Billy, Saint Stephen’s quarterback
Tod Creneti never made his team watch the film after the embarrassing loss. The game was on a Saturday in Oviedo, so Sunday was a day off. Saint Stephen’s regrouped on the Monday to hand in equipment and disperse for the winter. Most players had winter sports to get to even as the shutout loss, the Falcons’ first since 2013, was pressed into their minds.
“We all lived through it. That was enough,” Creneti said. “I think it burned for a lot of guys for a long time. I think it was January for a handful of kids before they could let go. They felt like we had a chance to do something really special and we missed that opportunity.”
By January, Saint Stephen’s already had the rematch scheduled. Realignment in December shrunk Saint Stephen’s Coral Bay division and moved Sante Fe Catholic to the Coral Orange division. After two years of division matchups, the budding rivalry was theoretically in jeopardy.
Creneti never planned to lose the Hawks from the schedule, though. When the head coach learned Saint Stephen’s would have four non-district games to fill, he reached out to Santa Fe. The Week 2 matchup was the first non-district game Saint Stephen’s scheduled.
“We love this game,” Creneti said. “It was the first game we scheduled because it’s a good game for us. It’s a very good game for us, and we want to be able to compete with them.”
Both should be contenders in the SSAC this year, although both lost non-conference games to start the year. Both begin the season in slightly different positions.
The Falcons had two seniors on last year’s team and began the season as MaxPreps.com’s highest-ranked team in the league. The Hawks are replacing six defensive players who earned All-Area nods from the Lakeland Ledger, and they have a new head coach following Billy Dickerson’s resignation in December.
Friday’s game will provide a benchmark for both teams. If Saint Stephen’s is going to win the first state championship in program history this year, it will probably have to beat Santa Fe Catholic at some point.
“We’re going into this game with a chip on our shoulders,” Billy said. “We know we’re going to get that best shot. We’re going to give them our best shot.”
Who: Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic at Saint Stephen’s
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: Moore Athletic Complex at Turner Fields