When a football game looks like a good match-up on paper, too often the end result is a lopsided affair that fails to live up to expectations.
And last Friday’s contest between Land O’ Lakes and Sunlake looked like a potential classic on paper.
This time, the game didn’t meet expectations. It beat them.
At the end of the game — which required overtime — the Sunlake Seahawks defended their home turf, put themselves in good position in the district standings and turned away the previously unbeaten Gators with a 28-21 victory.
That overtime was necessary underscores how close the game was: Neither team led by more than seven points, and they were tied at halftime, the end of the third quarter and at the end of regulation. And when Sunlake stopped Land O’ Lakes in overtime to clinch the win, Seahawks head coach Bill Browning’s first thoughts came from the perspective of both a football coach and a football fan.
“It was just relief, and what a great game to be a part of,” Browning said. “It was a great high school football game. Both teams played their hearts out.”
Each team had an offensive star suiting up for the contest, and both showed up to play: Sunlake’s junior running back Nathan Johnson and Land O’ Lakes’ junior quarterback James Pensyl had a hand in six of the seven touchdowns scored in the game. In the end, it was Johnson’s third touchdown run in overtime that became the margin of victory, eclipsing Pensyl’s three scoring passes.
But Browning pointed out that another player was instrumental in Sunlake’s victory. Senior quarterback Esteban LeWallen didn’t dominate the stat sheet, but his second start in place of injured junior Dayton Feiden was a solid one. He ran in a short touchdown and made important plays with his arm when it mattered.
“He came in and hit some very big passes in the course of that game that helped tremendously,” Browning said.
While beating an undefeated team is cause for celebration in itself, there was more at stake than one football game. With the win, Sunlake improved to 2-1 in the district while Land O’ Lakes fell to 1-1, keeping Sunlake alive for one of the two playoff spots. An earlier one-point loss to Springstead (currently 2-0 in district play) meant that losing to Land O’ Lakes would have handed both teams a better current record and tiebreakers over the Seahawks, eliminating them from playoff contention.
Instead they emerged with new life, a big victory and a potential tiebreaker against their district rival.
But if the team is vulnerable to a letdown after such a big win, Browning plans to use the schedule to ensure that doesn’t happen. The Seahawks have a bye this coming week, and he plans to use it to get them settled after an emotional victory and focused on their final district contest against Fivay (0-2 in district play, 3-4 overall) on Nov. 1.
Headed into their week off, Sunlake now has a 1,000-yard rusher in Johnson, renewed confidence and an eye on the playoffs. But to Browning, none of that matters unless they take care of business in their final district game.
“It kept us in the hunt. It guaranteed nothing, but it kept us in the hunt,” he said about the team’s recent win. “Land O’ Lakes still has to play Springstead, and of course, we still have to beat Fivay. All we can do is keep winning and things will take care of themselves, hopefully.”