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Saturday, December 4, 2010

The night that 'forgotten' Keys team won a football title

Rudy Tomjanovich once famously stated after his Houston Rockets won their second straight NBA championship in 1995, "Never underestimate the heart of a champion."

His Rockets, a sixth seed in that year's NBA Western Conference playoffs, rose up to repeat their title.

But what if your program has never won a championship? In the late summer 2000, the Marathon High School football program had never been a champion. As a matter of fact, if you lived in the Florida Keys like I did, the attitude was "Key West, and the other schools."

Talk about being the red-headed stepchild.

That all changed, though, during that magical fall. And with a team loaded with talent, one young man stood out on the football field.

He was a senior running back and linebacker named Joey Struyf, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound rock who was a headache for opposing defenses to bring down when he had the ball in his hand. Though he shared the backfield with quarterback T.T. Holmes and fullback Jovani Gonzalez, fellow seniors on a senior-laden team, Struyf was the center of attention.

And rightfully so. Struyf went for over 100 yards rushing in nine of the Dolphins' 10 regular-season games. It was his one failure, though, that stood out the most. That was his eight-carry, 29-yard effort that Key West held Struyf down to in a convincing 35-0 rout on Sept. 29.

The Key West-Marathon game ... oh yeah, the biggest freakin' high school football headache of my career. I took a ration of crap from Key West supporters because I picked Marathon's Dolphins to win that game. And I took a ration of crap from Marathon coach Jerry Jones -- a very good man with a resemblence to the great Ernest Hemingway but as stubborn as the day was long -- for a column I had done the day of the game on former Marathon coach Steve McAnelly. Apparently there were some problems back in the previous century before Jones took over for McAnelly in 1999.

It was so bad that after the Marathon-Key West game he refused to talk to me. As a matter of fact, he refused to talk to me for another week before he realized there was no conspiracy out there to undercut his position as MHS' football coach.

How can he accuse me of doing so when I was actually one of his biggest supporters.

Just some of the really stupid stuff I had to deal with in my time in the Keys.

Marathon bounced back from the Key West loss, winning the last five games to finish 9-1 and capture the District 12-1A championship. Next up was the state tournament and rematch with Miami Country Day. In '99, Marathon won its first-ever state tournament game with an 18-15 victory at the Miami-based school.

This time around at home, it wasn't close. Marathon prevailed, 29-6. Next was Zion Lutheran of Deerfield Beach, another tough program. No problem there. Gonzalez broke off a 59-yard score, Marathon's "Blue Bandits" came up with a number of turnovers and Struyf went for 184 yards in a 33-7 rout.

One more game to a regional championship. This time it would mean being on the road against another top-notch team in Hollywood Christian, the District 11-1A champion with a 9-3 mark going in. According to the Florida High School Athletic Association rules, if a district champion had hosted two games in the state tournament and the other team had hosted just one of two through that point, the team which hosted the one game got the home field.

Hey, it's the way the rules are written.

A fellow district champion hosting a game -- even if the game was six miles from their campus at Hollywood Hills High in Broward County -- against a district champion having to travel 130 miles is a big advantage. Anyone with any knowledge of the Florida Keys knows you don't get from Point A in the Keys to Point B on the mainland in a hop, skip and a jump.

Nonetheless, Friday, Dec. 1, 2000 had arrived. For the nearly four hours I was on the road, doubt crept in my mind. Was this four-hour trip going to be worth watching a region championship, the same way I saw Lacey Township High win back-to-back South Jersey Group III titles in 1988 and '89 or Toms River South beating Woodrow Wilson of Camden, 7-6, in the SJ III title game in 1991 or even Lakewood stunning Bridgeton by the same 7-6 score in 1986?

Four hours is a long time to be on the road.

But Marathon had the manchild in the backfield.

Struyf set the tone of the game by bursting through a hole and outracing Hollywood Christian defenders for an 80-yard score less than four minutes into the game for a 7-0 lead.

Still, Hollywood Christian had not gotten to this game by accident. The Eagles bounced back to take a 14-7 lead before some big runs by Struyf got the Dolphins into scoring position for Jesse Sheppard to kick a field goal before halftime, making it 14-10.

It would be the first possession of the second half that would decide the fate of this game. From his own 22, Struyf took a handoff from Holmes, found a hole small enough to wiggle through, then turned the jets on.

He was gone. Way gone. Seventy-eight yards later, Marathon held a 17-14 lead.

One run did all that. And it wasn't the fact Struyf wiggled through that hole. It was the separation he got between himself and defenders as the yard lines began disappearing in his distance that was the most impressive part.

Marathon's defense put the clamps on the Eagles' offense. And in a game not a lot of people believed it could win, Marathon did, 23-14.

Region 4-1A champions, just like that, the first region championship in the Keys since Key West's legendary 1989 team led by Corey Sawyer turned the trick.

As for Struyf, he made his case for being a first-team All-State player in the smallest classification. Holmes handed off to Struyf 37 times for a whopping 284 yards. Another guy, a stringer from the Sun-Sentinel had Struyf for 286 yards. We stood next to one another in the press box the entire night.

The young lady who was at the game covering it for another weekly paper in the Keys had a different opinion. She had Struyf for 297 yards. Now if you are off by a couple of yards here or there with fellow writers, you know you are doing your job. But 10 or more? Someone's not doing their job that well.

This was all right with an idiot producer who was in charge of looking over filming for the Sunshine Network (now SunSports), who proudly stated the fact Struyf had 297 yards. I had to break the news to him that he didn't quite have that many yards.

This douchebag's reaction? "We're going with the girl from the winning team's area. She's pretty accurate."

Um, excuse me, but I'm the actual "sports" guy from the winning team's area who has done this for 16 years (at that point), not a news writer who's been there for a few months.

I love and respect Joey Struyf a great deal, but he didn't have that many yards rushing. They were still a lot, though, and just added on to his legend of that season.

The next week, though, the ride ended for Struyf, Holmes and Gonzalez against state power Fort Meade. Led by standout quarterback and future University of Florida star Jamielle Cornelius, Fort Meade was up 35-0 at halftime and won 54-0.

Two good things about that game -- it was at home, so there wasn't a long ride back. The other was that Struyf went for 106 yards rushing, most of which came on a 77-yard run, to get over 2,000 yards for the season.

Sadly, that Marathon win over Hollywood Christian would be the last state playoff game a team from my coverage area would ever win. In 2001, Marathon struggled to a 5-5 record and because of constant strife between Jones and his athletic director, Jones was relieved of his duties after just three seasons.

And since 2003, I have worked in Putnam County, Florida, where our county teams have lost eight consecutive playoff games.

That's what makes that night 10 years ago in Hollywood so special. It was a night where one of the "forgotten" Keys teams did something special.

As for Struyf, he got to play at Florida International University after graduating, but knee injuries sidetracked any more dreams of gridiron grandeur. To this day, he's right up there with the Devin Hester, Keith Elias and the late Sean Taylor among the greatest players I've ever seen on a football field

That 2000 season belonged to Joey Struyf.

As did one memorable December night when he and his Marathon Dolphin teammates showed that heart of a champion.

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