Each year, high school football teams enter the season with specific goals. Some achieve them, and others fall short.
For Sunlake High School, the goal since the school’s inception has been to claim a district title. And every year they’ve fallen short of that goal.
Until this year.
The Seahawks survived a three-way tiebreaker on Nov. 3 that had teams playing one quarter of football against each other to determine a winner. As a result, they’ll enter the playoffs with the title of district champion of Class 6A-District 6, an accomplishment that’s not lost on head coach Bill Browning.
“It’s very gratifying. The kids worked very hard for it,” said Browning, who has been with the school since it opened in 2007.
Back then, the team was essentially a junior varsity squad, he said, and were out-matched at every turn. But over the years, Browning and his staff have built a successful program, finally claiming that elusive district title this season.
As a result, Browning let himself enjoy the moment. For a few hours, anyway.
By the next morning, it was on to game preparations, and getting his team prepared for the games in front of them.
“You meet one challenge and then you go on to the next challenge,” he said. “That’s the competitive nature.”
The challenge in the playoffs will be a home tilt against Vanguard High School on Nov. 14. Located in Ocala, the Knights don’t seem too formidable on paper. They’re just 4-5 on the season, and claimed a playoff spot as runner-up in District 5 with a 2-2 record. They were 1-4 on the road, and gave up an average of nearly 47 points in their five losses.
But Browning and the Seahawks won’t make any assumptions with regard to Vanguard. They’ve faced them in the playoffs before, winning a close contest, and know that any team that makes the postseason has talent.
To be successful, Sunlake will rely on the players like Naejaun Jackson, a running back and receiver who has given the offense a spark in the second half of the season. Browning described Jackson as the “lightning” to running back Nathan Johnson’s “thunder.”
While the experience of entering the playoffs as a district champion is a new experience for Sunlake, it’s nothing new for Browning. A high school coach for 25 years, he also earned district titles for Springstead High School and Hernando High School before taking the job to start the Seahawks’ program from scratch.
But this one is special, in part because his biggest fan isn’t here to watch the games anymore. His father, Maurice, passed away this past summer at age 95.
During his son’s tenure the older Browning attended every Sunlake football game. In the last contest he saw, the spring classic game, Browning’s father saw the team that would eventually earn the school its first district title.
And his assessment of his son’s team at the time?
“After the classic, his words to me were, ‘You’ve got your work cut out for you,’” Browning recalled.
After a lot of hard work, Sunlake is not only a district champion for the first time, but a playoff host as well. Browning hopes those advantages will help the team go farther this year than during previous campaigns.
“The farthest we’ve gotten is the second round in the playoffs,” Browning said. ‘That’s our goal now, to go farther than any Sunlake team has.”
While Sunlake has been able to console themselves with playoff runs while they sought a district title, it was a different story for Zephyrhills High School. But they snapped an eight-year playoff drought with their own tie-breaker game, and will head to the playoffs as the Class 5A-District 7 runner-up.
While the Bulldogs can be proud of accomplishing a major goal for 2014, there’s just one problem: The actual playoffs haven’t even started yet.
So now what?
“You feel really good for a short time, but you know you’ve got to get back to work and start over,” Zephyrhills coach Reggie Roberts said. “Our objective is not just to get there. It’s to perform once we get to the playoffs.”
Soon after he was drenched in a celebratory bath from the water cooler, Roberts already was thinking of the Bulldogs’ playoff strategy.
And Zephyrhills isn’t expecting a warm welcome in their return to the postseason. Their first match-up will be Nov. 14 at Live Oak to face Suwannee High School, a team that didn’t need any tiebreakers to qualify for the playoffs. With a perfect 9-0 overall record headed into their final regular season game, Suwannee dominated District 5 with a 6-0 mark. The Bulldogs finished at 9-1 after a 42-14 loss to Columbia High School from Lake City.
The team — also nicknamed the Bulldogs — has held opponents to seven points or less four separate times, while being held under 30 themselves just once.
The key to the Zephyrhills’ success, according to Roberts, will be not changing things just because it’s the playoffs. From coaching to practice to execution, he wants his team to utilize the same strengths that helped them reach the postseason.
“We have to go with what got us there, and we have to do what we’ve done all year long,” he said. “We have to play consistent football on both sides of the ball.”
Roberts knows first-hand the importance of ending the season strong. As an all-state linebacker for Zephyrhills, he made the playoffs in his senior season back in 1989. His defensive coordinator, Booker Pickett, also was on that team. But they lost their playoff game, a match-up Roberts still remembers well and thinks they could have won.
He doesn’t want his team ending their year with a feeling that they could have done more in the postseason, and his focus is on getting them as prepared as possible to be successful.
But Roberts also wants them to enjoy the moment the way he did when he played in the postseason, and appreciate the special atmosphere.
“The crowd, it was so packed there was no room to sit,” Roberts recalled. “It was tremendous. It was like a college atmosphere. It was great small-town football.
“That’s why you want to get there. To create those memories.”
Vanguard at Sunlake, 7:30 p.m.
Zephyrhills at Suwanee, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $8
If Sunlake (8-2) wins, Seahawks take on winner of Mitchell (6-4) at Gainesville (5-5).
If Zephyrhills (8-2) wins, Bulldogs take on winner of North Marion (8-2) at South Sumter (10-0).
Published November 12, 2014
See this story in print: Click Here