By Kyle LoJacono
After the 10 game football season, the best teams have risen to the top and have a chance to extend their football dreams in the playoffs. Area teams advancing include Sunlake and Gaither.
Sunlake (9-1) is playing in its first postseason in the program’s five-year history. The Seahawks finished as the Class 6A-District 6 runner-up, losing only to district champion Hernando.
Bill Browning, the only coach in program history, said making the playoffs is no small feat for a team that won just one game during its first two seasons.
“It’s really special for us to break through and make the playoffs, but we’re not happy just getting there,” Browning said. “We want to keep playing as long as we can. We were so close to making the playoffs last year and we want to make up for that.”
The Seahawks went 8-2 in 2010, but missed out on the postseason because of losses to district champion Pasco and runner-up Land O’ Lakes.
Sunlake lost 17 seniors after 2010, including quarterback Jacob Jackson and his single season program record 30 total touchdowns and 2,316 total yards.
Cameron Stoltz, a senior, took over under center this year, going 75-of-127 passes for 1,353 yards and 23 touchdowns while adding 146 rushing yards and another three scores.
Rashaud Daniels, Eddie Burgos and Jamal Jones have been Stoltz’s favorite targets.
Burgos has the most catches — 17 for 312 yards and four touchdowns. Daniels’ 366 yards is the most on the squad while posting six scores. Jones has 354 yards and found the end zone nine times.
The strength of the Seahawk offense has been its running game since the program started. Browning said there is no “every-down running back,” but several players who do certain things well.
“We’ve got a bruising runner like Jerome (Samuels), Rashaud with a lot of speed and Mike (Lopez) who is a really tough runner,” Browning said.
Samuels leads the squad with 68 carries, 417 yards and five rushing scores. Lopez has added 286 yards and three touchdowns, while Daniels has posted 332 and two TDs.
Sunlake’s offensive line is one of the strongest in the area. The unit is led by 6-foot-1, 300-pound Nate McCoole, who moved from tackle to center and posted a team-high 17 pancake blocks. Canon Clark has kicked in 13 pancakers.
On defense, linebacker Nick Morrison leads all Seahawks with 111 tackles, five fumble recoveries and four sacks. Fellow linebacker Kyle Fraser has added 44 tackles and two sacks.
The secondary leaders of Jones, Burgos and Daniels have combined for five interceptions, 14 passes defensed and three caused fumbles.
Along with those players, Browning said there are five members of his staff who have helped make Sunlake a contender.
Defensive coordinator Matt Smith and assistants Nick Carrol, Jimmy Bragg and Brandon Browning have been with the program since it opened. In addition, inside linebackers and tight ends coach Trey Burdick joined the staff in Year 2.
“They’ve all been instrumental in helping us get to where we are today,” Browning said.
Gaither (7-3) returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
The Cowboys went 4-1 in Class 7A-District 7 play to advance as the runner-up. Their lone league loss was to district champion Tampa Bay Tech 17-14.
Gaither first-year coach Jason Stokes said he knew the squad could make the playoffs even though the Cowboys won just four games the previous two seasons combined.
“I knew the talent was here,” Stokes said. “It’s a credit to the kids for coming in and practicing hard every day. Without them putting in the work we wouldn’t be going to the playoffs. … At first I think the kids were expecting a lot of the same, but when the wins started coming I could see the kids started to believe.”
The Cowboys have been a team led by their defense the last few years. Stokes said the team’s strength is still the D, but added the disparity is not as great as in the past.
“I’m happy with the different ways we’ve won,” Stokes said. “We’ve won with offense, with defense. We’ve won close games and we’ve won games by a lot. You need to be able do different things to win.”
The defense is led by linebacker Josh Scarberry. His 14 sacks are the most in Hillsborough County, while adding 94 tackles. The senior has also blocked a field goal and caused three fumbles while recovering four, including one he returned for a touchdown.
“He’s a great leader — not just in games but in practice too,” Stokes said. “He always brings a lot of energy and effort to everything he does and it pushes everyone to work harder.”
The secondary has picked off 17 passes this year, led by safety Eddie Pastrana’s six interceptions and cornerback Tyler McCollum’s three.
The offense has become more versatile under Stokes, who took over play calling duties after Week 2, and is averaging 27.1 points per game.
Shug Oyegunle, who was Gaither’s quarterback the last two years, has moved all over the field to use his explosive speed. He has two passing touchdowns while going 11 of 26 for 107 yards, while adding 481 rushing on 64 carries and 160 receiving on 12 catches and eight total scores.
Moving Oyegunle around was made possible when quarterback Alex McGough transferred from Wesley Chapel High. McGough has completed 42 of 86 attempts for 633 yards and 11 touchdowns.
—All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches.