Highland quarterback Bruce Kinsey and his teammates almost never lose their composure on the football field.
But when a remarkable ride comes to an end, as it did Friday with a 41-13 Division II state semifinal loss to powerful and incredibly fast Glenville at Byers Field, the emotions come pouring out.
There were tears aplenty when the best postseason showing in school history was halted one win short of a state title game appearance, but these are intelligent, caring, thoughtful kids who also realized exactly what they had accomplished.
They are so smart, selfless and team-oriented, in fact, that what made the end so difficult to accept wasn’t the loss, but that they were done playing together as one.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” said Kinsey, who was inconsolable for several minutes following the game but fought through it and ended up being every bit as classy, cooperative and complimentary as he was after Highland’s 13 victories. “I’ve poured my heart and soul into everything we’ve done throughout the season. It’s something I’ll remember the rest of my life. I love these guys.”
Even in defeat, the Hornets exhibited the kind of class and togetherness they exhibited in each of their victories. Heck, they may have displayed even more.
Glenville was up 13-0 before Highland even had a first down, but the Hornets battled back to tie the game at intermission, only to give up a long touchdown pass 33 seconds into the third period.
The Tarblooders ended up scoring 28 unanswered points in the second half, but don’t let the final score fool you: They had to work for the win. The Hornets made sure of that.
“They’re the most athletic team Highland’s ever played,” Kinsey said. “All those guys are fantastic football players. If I had to lose to somebody, I’m glad it was them. I hope they go out and win the state championship.”
While the Tarblooders proved over and over that speeds does indeed kill — quarterback Quan Robinson Jr. threw four touchdown passes to Marshon Lattimore, who might be playing on Sundays in a handful of years — the Hornets showed that guts, savvy, preparation, hard work and great coaching can take a team a long way.
In this case, it took them further than any team in school history. That they did things the right way, the classy way, made their accomplishments even more special, even more memorable.
“You conducted yourself with dignity and you conducted yourself with humility,” Highland coach Tom Lombardo told his players in their final postgame huddle. “That’s the biggest victory of all.”
Highland fans didn’t need to be told that. They already knew it, and they responded by giving the players a standing ovation as the Hornets approached the visiting stands to join the marching band in singing the alma mater one last time.
Highland’s crowd was once again large and boisterous — it outnumbered Glenville’s at least 10-to-1 — and don’t think for a minute the players didn’t recognize it.
Students, parents and everyone else who supported the team throughout the season became one big family, and when the seniors gather at their 20-year high school reunion in 2034, there will be tons of great stories to tell.
“I’m sad it’s over,” 6-foot-4, 280-pound two-way lineman Myles Houska said. “I’m not so sad because of the loss. I’m sad that (14) weeks with these guys is coming to an end.
“But we’ll always be together in our hearts. We accomplished some things Highland never had done.”
Like the seemingly always unflappable Kinsey, the massive Houska shed plenty of tears after the final gun sounded, as did a lot of Highland players.
It was a reminder not only of just how much they meant to one another all season — and what they will continue to mean to one another — but that they are kids. Mature, positive, likeble kids, but kids nonetheless.
More than that, it showed just how much each player cared. Not about individual accomplishments, but about the team, about the process, about the journey.
In that respect, the 2013 Highland football team still has a perfect record.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @RickNoland.