Thursday afternoon was the first time Ryan’s football players returned to the locker room, the time the team started the postseason ritual many teams started weeks ago.
Trash bags were handed out as lockers filled in August were emptied in early December after Saturday’s regional final loss to Cedar Hill knocked the Raiders out of the Class 5A Division II playoffs.
But even with the loss, this year’s batch of Raiders will be remembered for its incredible comebacks and its fearlessness in the postseason.
“We just wanted to prove something — that we weren’t scared of anybody we played,” Ryan senior defensive tackle J.T. Williams said. “We can play against anybody.”
Ryan entered the season off a 2012 campaign in which the Raiders went 6-5 and lost to Cedar Hill in the area round of the playoffs.
This season, the Raiders doubled the length of last season’s playoff run. Ryan held off Colleyville Heritage on the road to win its playoff opener before impressive comebacks against Waco Midway and Keller Fossil Ridge.
This year’s run to the state quarterfinals tied Ryan’s deepest run in the 5A playoffs. That run was made in 2004, the year after Ryan made four straight Class 4A Division I state championship game appearances and won the state title in 2001 and 2002.
The playoff roster for Ryan listed 51 seniors — players who were only freshmen when Ryan lost the 2010 Class 4A Division I final against Lake Travis. This year was the deepest the Raiders have traveled since then, topping the 2011 team that featured six Football Bowl Subdivision players, including Mario Edwards Jr., a Parade All-American who now is a starting defensive end at Florida State.
Ryan coach Joey Florence said this year’s team-first mentality, something he said didn’t exist in the 2011 team, allowed the Raiders to finish with a 10-3 record. It’s the second time in seven seasons at the 5A level that the Raiders have won at least 10 games.
“It was a very close unit,” Florence said. “They played together. They were not selfish. They played for all the right reasons. I think that’s what allowed them to win 10 games and come from behind in a couple of big games.”
It was a landmark year for Florence. The head coach led the team to its 14th consecutive playoff appearance, and he notched his 200th career win in the District 5-5A opener against Flower Mound Marcus.
The Marcus contest was an indication of what was coming for the Raiders. Ryan trailed 10-0 at halftime before storming back for a 13-10 victory.
Ryan senior Mitchell Bridges was the team’s starting quarterback for the second straight season. Bridges said that comeback win was a milestone for the team as it moved toward its goal of winning the state championship.
After finishing third in district play, this year’s team established its legacy with a 13-point comeback at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium against Midway in the area round — a win that was followed by something the team will always be connected with.
At Apogee Stadium the following week, Fossil Ridge scored 31 points before Ryan picked up a first down. The Raiders won 42-37.
There were plenty of comebacks off the field as well.
Ryan assistant coach Eric Lokey was diagnosed with Stage IV renal cell carcinoma, about nine months after he was thought to be cancer-free. He missed only one game this season.
Ryan senior defensive back Paul Hunter practiced and played the week his mother died from breast cancer.
Lokey, Hunter and the rest of the Raiders chased that elusive state title, a dream that ended with a loss to Cedar Hill. Ryan almost erased a 23-point deficit, but the Longhorns held off another Raider rally to knock Ryan out of the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
“I think we expected to win a state championship,” Florence said. “I think you could see it in their eyes. They were disappointed that they didn’t beat Cedar Hill, and they didn’t back down from Cedar Hill.”
Now all eyes turn to Florence, who is in the running to take over for Denton school district athletic director Ken Purcell when he retires later this month. Florence said he’s yet to make a decision on pursuing that role.
“I’m humbled that it’s even an option for me,” Florence said. “I’m going to take some time and pray about it, and we’re going to decide what’s best for my family and me. I just refuse to do that during the season. I felt like I owed it to these kids to give them everything I’ve got.”
On the other end of the Ryan fieldhouse, away from Florence’s office, some players sat with college coaches on recruiting trips while others cleaned out their lockers.
Bridges has been around the program since he was a ball boy and a young child. Now after two years as the starting quarterback, he joined about 50 other seniors and cleaned his locker out for the final time.
“It’s going to hit me eventually,” Bridges said. “It hasn’t quite yet, but I’m waiting for it to.”
BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.