The one thing a high school football team can’t control is its schedule.
Some games look pretty lopsided; either a team is playing an outmatched opponent, or they’re facing a superior team and have little chance at success. Other games look evenly matched but reveal a lack of talent, which might produce a dull contest.
But every so often there’s a game on the schedule that features two powerful teams that have enjoyed a lot of success, and are in each other’s way as they battle for district supremacy. They both have a lot of strengths and relatively few weaknesses, and it will be up to the coaching staff and individual efforts on the team to try and exploit them.
With a lot on the line for the teams and plenty of entertainment for the fans in the stands, those are the good ones.
One of those good ones is on tap Friday night at Sunlake High School, when the Seahawks (6-1, 1-1 in district play) host the Land O’ Lakes Gators (6-0, 1-0 in district play).
This isn’t just a matchup featuring two good teams: It’s the highest-scoring offense in the district (Land O’ Lakes has already put up 181 points) facing the stingiest defense (Sunlake has given up just 23 points all year, with four shutouts).
It’s also a true hometown rivalry, as the schools are less than 10 miles away from each other. And it’s critical to the standings, as both teams are chasing Springstead (6-1 overall but already 2-0 in the district). According to Land O’ Lakes Head Coach Brian Wachtel, following the game plan will be key in a contest featuring two good teams.
“Football is kind of like a chess match out there on the field,” he said. “The bottom line is, with football it comes down to execution. Your players have to execute the plays that are called.”
Nobody will be surprised if Land O’ Lakes tries to execute a number of passing plays, since they have a star in junior James Pensyl. He is averaging more than 230 yards per game, with a couple of rushing scores to complement double-digit touchdowns through the air.
Pensyl has shown a lot of growth in his second year, Wachtel said, and has a firm grasp of both the team’s objectives and the scheme they’re using to get there.
Even Sunlake Head Coach Bill Browning has taken note of Pensyl’s progress.
“He is vastly improved over last year,” Browning said. “They’ve developed a good scheme around him, that I think fits what he does well.”
Unfortunately for Browning, his own starting quarterback won’t be suiting up for Friday’s game: Junior Dayton Feiden suffered a recent knee injury, and was scheduled for surgery earlier this week. He’s out for the year.
That means senior Esteban LeWallen is transitioning from backup to starter (he was behind center for the team’s win against Wesley Chapel last weekend). With four years’ experience in the system, Browning saw good things in LeWallen’s first start and has confidence in him going forward.
Still, fans can expect a lot of running plays for Sunlake, specifically for star running back Nathan Johnson. The junior scored two more touchdowns last week against Wesley Chapel (boosting his season total to 10), and already is closing in on 1,000 yards rushing.
But Johnson isn’t guaranteed an easy time on Friday: Land O’ Lakes is second in the district with just 54 points allowed all year.
Still, Browning admits that Johnson will, as usual, be the focal point of their offense. “He is every week. It’s no secret,” he said.
No matter how the game itself plays out, both coaches are coming into the contest with a healthy respect for their opponent and the realization that this is a special week.
“This is a rivalry game. This is a community game. There will definitely be a great atmosphere there; there’s no doubt about that,” Wachtel explained.
And Browning agrees. “This is what high school football is all about. You want challenges like this as you play,” he said. “I would imagine that anybody who’s a high school football fan in Land O’ Lakes, Fla., will be at that game Friday night.”
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