Sunlake coach Bill Browning isn’t one to make excuses when his team doesn’t win. But a quick look at the injury list shows that the Seahawks’ team wasn’t at full strength when it fell to Vanguard on Nov. 13 by a 40-12 margin.
Take Sunlake’s starting receivers, for example. They weren’t on the field.
Two of Browning’s top wideouts were nursing broken collarbones. Another had a broken ankle. And those guys only made up part of the injury list, which included linebackers, linemen, special teams players and even a couple of players who were lost before the season even started.
“We had five broken bones this year. I’ve never had five broken bones in a year, I don’t think,” Browning said. “By the end of the season, the injury bug had really gotten us bad.”
The end of the season also provided the toughest part of the schedule.
After Sunlake raced to a 7-0 start despite some injuries, they found tough competition at the end of the year. Losses to district champion Mitchell and St. Petersburg were followed by a 1-point win over River Ridge to finish the season 8-2.
By the time Vanguard (the team Sunlake beat 24-6 in last year’s playoffs) defeated the Seahawks, the team had dropped three of its last four games.
Still, Browning’s healthy athletes gave it all they had.
They played the Knights tough early, cutting the lead to 14-10, at one point in the game. But, their opponent proved to be too powerful to compete against at anything less than full strength.
“They’re a very good football team this year. They’ve got excellent speed, and they’re big and athletic,” Browning said of Vanguard, who fell to Gainesville, 35-28, on Nov. 20.
“Our kids gave great effort on the field,” Browning said.
That effort didn’t result in a playoff win, but it did mean another season with at least eight wins, the sixth straight for the program. Playoff berths have become common, and the team is recognized as a force in 6A-6, considered a challenging district with Mitchell, Springstead, Pasco and Land O’ Lakes.
And while it might be a bit early to speculate on 2016, Browning acknowledged he’ll have some important players coming back next year. Two-way athletes Ryan Clark and Cris Galdos will join quarterback Justin Hall as they try to build on this year’s success.
But, they’ll have to do it with a new offensive line. That unit was made up of seniors, which means it will be Browning’s main building project before the regular season.
The team has a history of setting high goals and reaching them. Sunlake claimed its first district title last season. And, Browning said he’d like to see them eventually get farther than the second round — the school’s best.
Browning realizes that such achievements are not possible every year, especially when players don’t stay healthy. In many cases those injuries could mean a lost season, but at Sunlake it still resulted in a playoff berth.
Despite the early exit from the playoffs, this year is still recognized as a successful season, and is a source of pride for a coach who wants to see his team give it their all, no matter the circumstances.
“They battled the whole way,” Browning said, referring to his athletes. “We went as far as we could go this year.”
Published November 25, 2015