Land O’ Lakes football looks to regain playoff form
By Kyle LoJacono
Every high school football team has a goal of making the playoffs, but Land O’ Lakes has more motivation than most.
The Gators had their 14-year postseason streak snapped following a 7-3 year.
The program was dealt another blow in February when an internal investigation revealed an ineligible player had participated with the team the last two years. Land O’ Lakes had to forfeit every game since 2010, cutting one year off the playoff streak.
“We don’t talk about that; not at all,” said sophomore defensive end/fullback Shaheed Salmon.
The drive to get back to the top is great even if it isn’t a talking point.
“We’re trying to get back to Land O’ Lakes football,” said junior running back Harrison Wood. “It’s not talked about too much, but it’s understood that we have to step it up a notch. We know we have to do better than last year, and now we just have to do it.”
Second-year Gators’ coach Brian Wachtel added, “We set the bar at the top every year. You strive to be at the top regardless of what happened last year.”
Land O’ Lakes players have the advantage of spending a season in Wachtel’s system.
“I think they’ve done a phenomenal job learning, being disciplined, flying around and understanding what we’re doing on offense and defense,” Wachtel said. “There’s no doubt things are a little easier for them and for us teaching them in Year 2.”
The Gators did graduate several key offensive players, including four of the top five in receiving yards for last year. What the team does have is a lot of experience on the offensive line, where four of the five starters return.
“We’ve been together for a while; we know what the others are going to do,” said junior left tackle Justin Forchion. “With the O-line you work together to make things work, and all of us know what the others are going to do.”
Along with the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Forchion, the unit returns guards Frank Hegedus and Justin Claxon and center John Kranendonk while adding Garrett Lunn at right tackle. The line opens up holes for Wood to gain a team-high 789 yards on 141 carries and 10 touchdowns last season. The 5-foot-8, 170-pound back also caught 18 balls for 159 yards and two more scores.
“I’ve been working a lot on my hands,” Wood said. “I want to make sure I don’t fumble, and I want to be a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield as well.”
The established line and ground game will be a big help to freshman Ethan Weilant, who will be the starting quarterback.
“Ethan has really stepped up to the plate,” Wachtel said. “I’m very excited for what he can do. He gets out there, commands the offense and is a leader, no doubt about it.”
Salmon added, “He’s tough and shows no hesitation. He’ll run the ball up the middle, and he has an arm too.”
The 6-foot, 160-pound Weilant already has one start under his belt; a 52-3 win against Central where he completed 6-of-9 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns.
“It made me excited to get a chance to play,” Weilant said. “It was nice to have a good game in my first start.”
The defense suffered its biggest losses at linebacker.
Inside linebacker Jackson Cannon and weakside linebacker Shadow Williams combined for 151 tackles and 6.5 sacks last year as seniors.
The rest of the defense was relatively untouched by graduation.
“Internally we’ve got Colin Irwin, Spencer Curtis and Darius Wells,” Wachtel said. “We bring back Kyle Forchion at outside linebacker and Justin Forchion helping on the defensive line. We’ve also got some offensive line guys who are doing some stuff on the defensive line, so there are a lot of guys who know what we’re trying to do on defense.”
Salmon said the defense is working to improve its reaction now that they all know the system.
“We’re working to all get quicker,” Salmon said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. Not just faster, but quicker at making reads.”
Salmon will also be a weapon at fullback thanks to his 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame.
“No one is going to want to tackle him,” Wachtel said.
Land O’ Lakes will get its first test in the spring game at home against Fivay May 24 at 7 p.m.
“I’m excited,” Weilant said. “Our team is ready to get out there and play and bring this team back to what it was before when it was making the playoffs every year.”
–Stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches