By Jeff Odom
For the first time in two seasons, the Land O’ Lakes football team can add one to its win total.
The program had to forfeit 16 wins from the 2010 and 2011 seasons after an internal investigation found former quarterback Ryan Bird was ineligible when he played with the program.
The Gators (1-0) shook off the sanctions imposed by the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) and a rocky start to score 31 unanswered points en route to a 38-27 home win over Zephyrhills.
“We really didn’t think about (the offseason),” said sophomore quarterback Ethan Weilant. “We just wanted to win, honestly. We didn’t care about the past. It doesn’t matter now, and we really didn’t care about it tonight.”
The Bulldogs (0-1) had Land O’ Lakes playing catch-up early in the first quarter, taking advantage of two Weilant interceptions.
Bulldogs quarterback Mikey Smith caught the Gators secondary napping with a deep pass on fourth down. The risk worked, as Smith found Jarret Kelly in the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown.
Kelly also halted the Gators’ 13-play drive on the home team’s next possession, stepping in front of a receiver for an interception. He returned the ball 60 yards to set up another long passing touchdown from Smith, this time to Jaylen Pickett.
The momentum turned late in the opening period as Weilant found his game.
On Land O’ Lakes’ third possession, the first-year starting quarterback avoided pressure and heaved the ball 43 yards into the end zone to Kyle Forchion.
Linebacker Colin Irwin recovered a fumble on the Bulldogs’ 25-yard line two possessions later to give the Gators another shot at a touchdown. This time, Weilant called his own number for the 8-yard rushing score.
Weilant also hit Seth Galbraith for a 29-yard touchdown in the first half. He completed 4-of-10 passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns while adding 50 yards on the ground with two more scores.
The signal caller said he felt pressure entering the game, but added it didn’t really sink in until he took the first snap.
“I mean, first quarter didn’t go so well, and then we got in the groove,” Weilant said. “We pulled it out, and that’s how we needed to start the season.”
Land O’ Lakes entered halftime leading 24-14 after Andrew Dowler hit a 32-yard field goal as time expired. The Gators went back to their original game plan coming out of the locker room — feed the running machine.
Senior running back Harrison Wood, who finished with 140 of his squad’s 228 rushing yards and a nine-yard touchdown, helped drive the ball down field while wearing out the Zephyrhills defense.
Land O’ Lakes took their opening drive of the second half 54 yards capped off by Weilant’s second rushing touchdown. Gators’ second-year coach Brian Wachtel was impressed with his young quarterback’s progression.
“He’s stepping up to the plate,” Wachtel said. “He’s still learning, there’s no doubt about that, but he hit some nice passes down there and he took off on those nice runs, and those were big plays for us tonight.”
Zephyrhills tried to come back in the fourth quarter, scoring a pair of late touchdowns, but the Bulldogs’ ineffectiveness to convert on two fourth downs in scoring position thwarted any hope.
Wachtel credited his defense for coming up big when it mattered.
“They worked hard,” Wachtel said. “They fought the entire time and they overcame the adverse situation, and I am very proud of them for that.”
Land O’ Lakes travels to Pasco on Aug. 7 at 7:30 p.m.
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