Gators beat Mitchell 21-17
By Steve Lee
TRINITY — The Land O’ Lakes-Mitchell game on Nov. 6 at Mustang Stadium lived up to the hype with the Class 3A, District 7 rivals fighting for their playoff lives.
For three quarters, the matchup resembled a ho-hum chess match with the Gators clinging to a slim 7-3 lead. Then came the offensive explosion — four touchdowns in the final quarter.
When the dust settled, Land O’ Lakes kept its county-record streak intact with a 21-17 comeback thriller. Mitchell took the lead twice on long drives in the final frame, only to be countered by Land O’ Lakes’ two quick-strike touchdowns.
The Gators are headed to their 13th straight postseason while the Mustangs are left to wonder how they missed the playoffs following a school-record 8-0 start.
Pasco, which halted Mitchell’s season-long streak two weeks ago, won the 3A-7 title and Land O’ Lakes is the district runner-up. Pasco went 7-0 in the district, Land O’ Lakes was 6-1 and Mitchell 5-2.
Repeated chants of “We’re going to the playoffs,” were shouted louder and louder from the Land O’ Lakes sidelines as the game clock expired.
In his first season as the replacement for John Benedetto, who coached Land O’ Lakes to 196 wins in 32 seasons, Matt Kitchie took a moment to reflect as he sat on the visitors’ bench after all the postgame interviews were done and the stadium emptied.
“It means everything,” Kitchie said of extending the streak. “The pride that runs through Land O’ Lakes is unbelievable.
“When you follow a legend like John Benedetto … I have to be honest, it’s just special to be a part of that tradition. Land O’ Lakes has opened up their hearts to me. It really is special.”
Special for the fans on both sides was how the fourth quarter played out. Mitchell went ahead on the longest play of the game with Ricky Trinidad bursting up the middle into the end zone from three yards out. That score capped a 21-play, 94-yard drive and gave the Mustangs a 10-7 lead.
It didn’t take long for the Gators to retake the lead, just three plays to be exact.
Stephen Weatherford, the last of three siblings to play quarterback at Land O’ Lakes, connected with Will Irwin on a 78-yard touchdown pass and the Gators went ahead 14-10.
“When I caught that ball and started running, I was like, ‘Don’t fumble,’” said Irwin, surprised at how open he was behind the Mitchell defense.
Once again, Mitchell chewed up valuable time on the clock with a methodical 14-play, 80-yard drive. And just like the Mustangs’ previous possession, Trinidad finished it off with a 5-yard touchdown run.
That time, however, it was a bit more exciting for the home fans since that play came on fourth down. It marked the second time on that Trinidad converted a fourth down with a short run on that sustained drive.
“That Ricky Trinidad is one heck of a running back,” Kitchie said of Trinidad, who after missing the Pasco game a week earlier due to a back injury came back to gain 178 yards and score twice against the Gators.
Weatherford and the Gators weren’t done, even though about two minutes remained in the game. Similar to the previous drive, Land O’ Lakes needed just three plays to score.
Weatherford’s 45-yard pass to Alex Robinson set up the final touchdown, a 24-yard pass over the middle from Weatherford to Irwin. Weatherford was nearly sacked on the pass to Robinson, but he rolled to his left and found the senior all alone near the left sideline.
“Stephen is a leader, No. 1,” Kitchie said.
Weahterford made it look so easy late in the game, leaving some to wonder why Kitchie didn’t unleash his quarterback and play long ball much sooner.
“We got down and I decided, ‘That’s enough. We’re going to throw it,’” Kitchie said.
And the rest, as they say, is history.