HOLLY HILL – It was a bitter loss because that comes naturally when a team has achieved so much.

Laurens Academy lost it first two games, and when a football program that has never known a winning season loses back-to-back close ones – 18-12 to Holly Hill Academy and 42-36 to Palmetto Christian – it’s almost impossible not to have this collective “oh, great, here we go again” sinking feeling.

It never happened. The Crusaders couldn’t have stuck together better if they’d had a coat of Gorilla Glue. They won eight of their next nine games until they met their final match.

Every season ends, whether by loss or, in the rarest of years, a global pandemic. Laurens Academy’s season ended against the same school that started it.

Holly Hill Academy 50, Laurens Academy 36.

The game ended the same way it started, too. The Raiders won the first quarter 16-0 and the fourth 20-6. The Crusaders won the middle two 16-8 and 14-6.

It adds up. 50-36. Damn it.

So did the season in Laurens County end, even though the site was in Orangeburg County. No hill is apparent in Holly Hill, just a little private school on the edge of town where the grass was soggy and a mist hung over the field to lend a certain ghostly presence to Friday the 13th.

The faithful got angry at the zebras. They drove down I-26 expecting to win and drove back up it angry.

Caleb Gilbert and I didn’t drive home angry. I dropped him off in Columbia and his photos were in the mail when I turned on the laptop. We hated to go all the way down there to see a loss. I hated having to write about a loss. Mainly we just talked about the vast gulf between his generation and mine, his life and mine. By the time he was back at his apartment, it didn’t seem so wide, the gulf. The conversation and the barbecue were good. The game wasn’t.

We weren’t the players or the coaches or the fans. Two out of three didn’t seem so bad.

Some teams probably don’t expect to win. This one did. Its players got together over the summer and made a commitment to winning. They won twice as many games as the year before. They’ll remember what they did for the rest of their lives. They wanted to play together forever, and they’re still young enough for the notion not to seem ridiculous.

There they were, huddled together in sorrow, taking knees in a makeshift circle for an inordinately long time. They call it fellowship in church. Todd Kirk, a man larger in life and than life, one who calls everybody “friend,” talked about the game to Caleb, John Clayton and me.

The mist still hung. Holly Hill Academy was still undefeated. It was getting late.

The enthusiasm of youth took a few hits, but it will survive.