When talking to the members of the Miramar (Fla.) High football team, it's clear that the operative word is "focus." Everyone uses it, from fifth-year coach Damon Cogdell to five-star cornerback Tracy Howard. It's something the team has never lacked: Entering the Class 8A regional finals against Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.), its record is 11-0.
All the focus in the world, however, couldn't have prepared Miramar for what happened on July 26. During a preseason practice, senior Isaiah Laurencin, a 6-3, 286-pound offensive lineman, suddenly collapsed to the turf. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, subsequently slipping into a coma.
On the morning of July 27, just two weeks shy of his 17th birthday, the unthinkable happened: Isaiah Laurencin died.
Miramar went into grief mode: It held a candlelight vigil that hundreds of people -- including his jersey-clad teammates -- attended. A funeral followed eight days later. A team, school and community were left reeling.
Cogdell was among those devastated. But he didn't shy away from the tragedy. Instead, he invited the Patriots back to the field, promising to honor Laurencin's memory.
"A lot of coaches want to try to eliminate it, to keep it out of the air, but we know he was a great kid," said Cogdell. "He's with us forever, that's the mind frame we're putting on here."
So far, the Patriots have been successful. Following a 23-7 win over Cypress Bay (Fla.), they're just three wins shy of a coveted state championship.
Returning to football wasn't easy. Miramar's season-opener against Blanche Ely (Fla.) tested their resolve, with the game taking place just six weeks after Laurencin's death. The team played with heavy hearts, something particularly poignant in the locker room.
"It was tough especially at half time when you got half the team crying, thinking about what happened, as I'm crying just to get them back up to play," Cogdell recalled. "Because of the brotherhood we have as coaches, we were able to get the kids back and focused."
The Patriots won 31-9 and haven't looked back since, outscoring opponents 373-87. Laurencin's memory has been ever-present: It's provided added fuel to keep the undefeated season alive.
"Isaiah was not just an athlete, but a tremendous person," said assistant coach Artis Warthen. "[His death] had an adverse affect on us, but it caused us to pull together. We use it as a motivational tool."
Senior running back Mark Rucker echoed those sentiments.
"Isaiah's always on my mind," he said. "That goes for the whole team. Everybody goes hard just for 'Zay."
There's more to Miramar than just Laurencin, though. In its quest for the first unbeaten season in program history, the team has benefited from the play of several top recruits. Howard is Rivals' top-ranked corner, holding offers to Alabama, LSU and Florida, among others. Quarterback Cameron Hudge is a potent passing threat, tossing for 1,936 yards and 22 touchdowns. Wideout Malcolm Lewis committed to Miami two weeks ago, and through 11 games, is averaging 14.5 yards per reception.
"He's a dynamic kid," Cogdell said of Lewis. "He can play offense or defense, and he can run back punts and kickoffs."
Miramar is also strong up front, boasting an offensive line with seniors Daniel Leonard, Kevin Gonzalez and Clevonne Davis and juniors Mike Miranda and Mike Rodriguez. They've banded together in Laurencin's absence, paving the way for an offense that's rushed for 1,744 yards and 24 touchdowns.
"They may be the most important players on this team," said Warthen. "We're loaded with guys who are consistent and who know what they're doing."
The Patriots are unmistakably talented. And following Laurencin's death, they've become unwaveringly motivated.
The road to perfection remains formidable. Despite defeating Northeast (Fla.), the team that eliminated it from last year's playoffs, and St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.), 66-4 dating back to '06, Miramar will likely need to beat Plant (Fla.) en route to a title. At 11-1, the Panthers are certainly no pushovers.
But don't expect Miramar to shy away from the challenge. The team is after what it has sought all season: a championship in Laurencin's honor.
"We just have to refocus and work harder," says Jordan. "Records really don't matter when it comes to playoffs. Everybody gets a fresh start, so we just have to keep the focus."
This much is clear: Not only have the Patriots thrived on the field -- they've helped a school and community heal in the process. And that, more than anything, has been the Patriots' ultimate focus.
"It's a great feeling," Cogdell said. "You go home at the end of the night and have a cigar and just smile."