Seconds removed from a convincing loss to private-school power Valley Christian in the Central Coast Section Division III football championship, Aptos High coach Randy Blankenship wasn't quite ready to pack the dirt on the team's freshly dug grave at Independence High.
The Mariners' sensational season came to an end in an uncharacteristic, turnover-laden finale on a drizzly Saturday afternoon, but Blankenship wasn't going to cry over spilled milk following a 51-20 loss to the Warriors.
"I'm really proud of this group," the third-year Mariners coach said. "We didn't come here to do this. But you can't take away the year we've had."
And, boy, what a year it was.
After graduating a ton of senior talent, including league MVP Riggs Powell, few outside Aptos predicted another banner season for the Mariners. But the team never stopped believing -- in themselves and each other.
They regrouped from an 0-2 start to rattle off 10 straight wins in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
With the string of victories, the Mariners repeated as unbeaten Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League champions and pulled a pair of come-from-behind postseason upsets to make their first section title game since 2002.
After knocking off No. 4 Saratoga 28-24 in the first round, the No. 5 Mariners pulled off another road stunner in the semifinals, when they ousted top-seeded Monterey 34-31.
A sixth-place finisher in the West Catholic Athletic League, Valley Christian held the No. 3 seed and proved to be the toughest of them all.
The Mariners (10-3), though, felt like they didn't help their cause.
"I feel like we beat ourselves," said Mariners running back Brodie Bennet.
The Mariners fumbled seven times and lost the ball three times, including a 46-yard return by Warriors quarterback and safety Jay MacIntyre. They also threw an interception in the end zone while threatening to score.
"We got there by not making those mistakes, but those mistakes were there tonight," Blankenship said.
Opportunistic and talented, the Warriors scored 28 points off the Mariners' mistakes.
It was a sad display highlighted by spurts of brilliance from Mariners running back Elijah Marta and quarterback Alex Joh.
Blankenship's Mariners had spent all offseason in the weight room, building bulk and chemistry to perfect their machine-like wing-T attack on offense. On the biggest stage of the season, against a quality opponent, the machine malfunctioned.
You know what Blankenship did? He tipped his cap. Not only to the Warriors (7-6), but to his Mariners.
Wasn't he mad about the loss? Sure. But upset? He couldn't be further from upset.
"I'm grateful and thankful for the effort these guys put forth," he said.
The Mariners limited the damage from Warriors running back Ryan Severson, who has committed to San Jose State. But the Warriors -- despite having eight starters sidelined by injury this season -- proved to be too deep.
Behind MacIntyre's three touchdowns passes and two long touchdown runs from sophomore sensation Kirk Johnson, the Warriors never trailed. By halftime, they held a 34-13 lead and were prepping coach Mike Machado's fifth championship game Gatorade shower.
"I don't think we felt nervous," Bennet said. "I mean, we're always loose. Coach always tells us, 'The ball bounces funny ways in the playoffs.' There's not much we can do about it now."
"We didn't really play how we normally play," said Joh, one of five starters returning on each side of the ball for Aptos next season. "I know if we played Mariner football, we would've had a better shot today. Next year will be strong year. Our guys kinda got a taste of what it's like to be in a big game. Next year, if we come back here, I think we have a good chance to seize our opportunities."
Blankenship wasn't quite ready to look ahead to next season.
He credited his seniors for their leadership and praised their efforts in the weight room.
"It's been a hell of year," Blankenship said.
During his kudos, Blankenship stopped.
"Losing always sucks," he said, pausing to chuckle. "Alright? I mean, because these kids worked their tails off and they deserve better. But the sun's going to rise tomorrow and all. Undefeated league champs two years in a row and we made a run in the playoffs. And the Mariners are going to keep fighting."
Saturday, though, the rain followed Aptos' busses home.
Intent on making it a positive ride, Blankenship prepared to ask his team one question in the postgame huddle before boarding.
"I'm going to ask them right now: If they knew the outcome, would they do it again? And I bet they would," he said.
Because one bad day can't overshadow a great season.
Jim Seimas is the Sentinel's assistant sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @AiringItOut.