Santucci: Challenging schedule set up Cocoa football for postseason success

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The Cocoa Tigers defeated Bolles in the class 4A football state semifinal Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK
The Cocoa Tigers defeated Bolles in the class 4A football state semifinal Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK

COCOA — What a difference a year makes.

For the second consecutive year, Cocoa trailed at halftime of the Class 4A state semifinal by double digits at home against a state power that was running the ball at will and with a Tigers offense that had been held to just seven points.

So how did Cocoa manage to rally from a 17-point deficit Friday to beat Bolles 35-24? How did the Tigers run off 28 unanswered points in the second half to secure a berth in the state championship game against Cardinal Gibbons?

Because the Tigers played a regular season schedule that prepared themselves for the moment.

More about the game: Cocoa shuts out Bolles in second half of semifinal comeback

“Maybe because of the COVID situation, we weren’t able to play the schedule that prepared us for that situation,” Tigers coach Ryan Schneider said. “This year, non-COVID, we were able to play a schedule that prepared us for adversity. Last year we went through a lot of games where it didn’t matter what happened, we were going to have success.”

When Cocoa came out of the locker room trailing 24-7 on Friday, the players weren’t talking about how this happened to them against Gibbons last year. They weren’t hanging their heads thinking, “Here we go again.”

They were talking about Treasure Coast and how they’ve already done this before.

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On Sept. 25, Cocoa trailed Treasure Coast by 21 points at home. They came back to win that game, 56-55 in double-overtime.

As much as Friday’s game against Bolles required halftime adjustments to stop the run and give senior quarterback Davin Wynder time to throw, it also demanded mental fortitude and determination.

It was a mental toughness forged from playing one of the toughest schedules in the state, a gauntlet that had Schneider half-jokingly say he hoped Cocoa would win enough games to get into the postseason.

The Cocoa Tigers face Bolles in the class 4A football state semifinal Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.  Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK
The Cocoa Tigers face Bolles in the class 4A football state semifinal Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK

But that’s why you play Venice and Treasure Coast — two of the four Class 8A state semifinalists — as well as regional semifinalists Vero Beach, Kissimmee Osceola and Rockledge. It’s not only to see elite competition, it’s to experience on-field struggles that give a team unwavering resolve when it needs it most.

Cocoa’s first four games this season were decided by a total of four points, and the Tigers were faced with deficits several times throughout the season.

By comparison, last year’s Cocoa team romped through a perfect regular season, shut out its first three opponents by a combined score of 151-0 and did not play a game that was decided by less than 11 points. When Gibbons took a 21-6 lead at halftime of the 2020 state semifinal, Cocoa didn’t have any experiences to draw from that told the Tigers the second half could be different.

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“This year, we played a tough schedule, and it prepared us for this game,” senior defensive lineman Timothy Passmore said. “At halftime, we were talking about how we came back before, 35-14 against Treasure Coast.

“We’ve been doing it all year. It shows you not to give up. You can always come back.”

This team can.

And the other sideline could see it, too.

“I give them credit,” Bolles coach Matt Toblin said. “They’re resilient. They fought back. They didn’t blink.”

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Santucci: Challenging schedule set up Cocoa football for postseason success

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