Athletics: One for the Record Books

Panthers’ season excites fans and gives them even more optimism for the future

In 2014 Florida Tech football proved that it could compete with any team in the Gulf South Conference, and it put a scare in some of the top teams in NCAA Division II. In 2015, the program’s third season, the Panthers established themselves as a team that is capable of not just hanging around with those teams but winning those games and competing for a conference championship.

Although the Panthers ultimately came up one game short of staking claim to a GSC title and being selected for postseason play, to call the season anything but a success would be selling what the team accomplished incredibly short.

FIT’s will was tested early, suffering a number of injuries to key components, including all-conference players in quarterback Mark Cato and running back Trevor Sand in the opening game against Newberry. Even in the absence of so many important pieces, FIT managed to put itself in a position to tie the game as time expired. Former soccer star Drake Hillman stepped in for his first-ever field goal attempt and gave it plenty of leg. Unfortunately, the Englishman’s 51-yard attempt struck the left upright, handing the Panthers their first loss of the season.

With a pair of defeats to Division I opponent Southeastern Louisiana and Division II power North Alabama sandwiching a 37-0 thumping of Warner, FIT put itself in a big hole at 1-3 overall.

However, the Panthers didn’t lose faith. Florida Tech would go on a program-best six-game winning streak to get back in the thick of the conference race.

The journey started in Cleveland, Mississippi, where FIT matched up with perennial powerhouse No. 5 Delta State. Using a 41-17 run, the Panthers claimed the victory, holding off a late push for a 41-37 win. Florida Tech became the first team in three years to defeat the Statesmen on their home field.

The Panthers continued the momentum by rattling off four more wins in a row over West Alabama, Fort Valley State, Mississippi College and Shorter.

The following week would present the largest challenge of them all. Not only was it Senior Day and FIT’s annual Homecoming Game but the Panthers were also tasked with facing No. 1 West Georgia at Florida Tech Panther Stadium. Playing in front of a national audience on ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app, Florida Tech jumped out early to a 28-6 lead. FIT held off a furious comeback for a 26-28 win, handing the Wolves their first loss of the season.

“Every game is one that you want to win, but there’s something special about the big games,” said Cato. “We went into that game knowing West Georgia was beatable, and we did what was needed to win.”

Unfortunately, the Panthers were unable to lock up a share of the GSC title and a playoff berth the following week as FIT lost at Valdosta State 39-21 in the regular season finale.

Despite falling just short of their goals, head coach Steve Englehart showed nothing but pride in his team’s season.

“I’m happy with the way our team competed this year and fought back after a 1-3 start,” he said. “There were times throughout the year that I think we played as well as anyone in the country. This year was a great momentum builder for the future.”

Though the annals of FIT football lore are relatively short, the 2015 season was certainly one for the books..

—Mitch Praxl

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