PALMETTO -- The defeat is still fresh for the Palmetto High football team.
No, it’s not the lone loss this season against county rival Manatee in late October.
It’s the stinging defeat at the hands of Cape Coral that ended last fall’s campaign.
Head coach Dave Marino said the Tigers lost to the Seahawks because they were bigger, stronger and faster.
That’s when the challenge was thrown down, and his players hit the weight room more determined than ever.
“The kids realized that every day, every play, every game matters,” Marino said. “And if you don’t have your 100 percent focus, passion and intensity, you can get beat. So they’ve learned that lesson. ... It’s that daily, consistent work ethic that has gotten us to this point.”
The sweat and hard work from conditioning drills over the summer is what unites the group that will take the field Friday night at Harllee Stadium against first-round playoff opponent Auburndale (2-8).
Those attributes have been apparent each time the Tigers have suited up this season.
Palmetto has blown away its opposition at the start only a few times this season.
Against Sarasota, Riverview and Venice (in the Kickoff Classic), the Tigers pulled away in the second half with their improved conditioning.
It’s all added up to a program-record 9-1 season. But the Tigers aren’t looking past their Class 5A first-round opponent.
Auburndale enters with just two wins, but those two victories came in district play.
“Monday, we had to address that,” said Marino about staying focused on a team with two victories. “Monday was a challenge. Tuesday and Wednesday, we had a great practice. The kids got the message and understand what’s at stake.”
Palmetto has several talented playmakers on both sides of the ball, including senior Da’Qual Randall. The linebacker is the nephew of former Manatee High and Nebraska star Tyrone Williams, who won a Super Bowl ring in 1996 with the Green Bay Packers.
The added pressure of being related to a Manatee County high school football legend can be a burden, but Randall hasn’t wilted.
“A lot of people don’t really know it, but my dad and all my uncles are tough on me about it,” said the 6-foot, 230-pound Randall, who has verbally committed to the University of Louisville. “They want me to follow in hissteps, so they’re tough on me like I have to leave a legacy here like he left a legacy at Manatee. ... That’s why I play the way I do. I’m trying to get better than what he was, trying to reach his goals and accomplish all that he accomplished.”
On offense, Palmetto’s ability to stay balanced (170.5 passing yards, 167.8 rushing yards a game) is another reason the Tigers enjoyed a district championship and the right to host a first-round playoff game.
However, Marino said two offensive weapons -- wide receiver Cory Crawford and running back Josh Hicks -- will not play Friday.
Marino said both players are banged up and are week-to-week. He said everyone else is healthy and ready to go.
In Hicks, the Tigers are losing a tailback who amassed more than 1,100 yards on the ground and is averaging 7.2 yards a carry.
Replacing the shifty speedster is Leon Gilbert, who hurt his ankle in the first regular season game against Riverview.
“I’m ready to step up. I come to practice and work real hard, help my teammates out and keep working hard at it,” Gilbert said.
Driving the Tigers all year has been the first-round exit in 2010.
“That’s motivation, actually,” Randall said. “When we lost to Cape Coral, that motivated us to get back together. We want that Cape Coral rematch. ... Everybody we’ve played, that’s been the motto: ‘Cape Coral.’ Coaches say we lost that game because they were bigger, stronger and faster, but this year, we’re bigger, stronger and faster.”
But that matchup wouldn’t take place until the regional championship.
For now, Randall and Co. are focusing on Auburndale. A victory pushes the Tigers one step to their ultimate goal -- a state championship.