High school football teams fight all year for a shot at the district title. If they fall short, the backup plan is to be district runner-up, because that spot (like the title winner) earns a trip to the playoffs.
Neither the Wharton Wildcats nor the Sunlake Seahawks were able to achieve their top goal of a district title, but both earned a hard-fought runner-up spot to earn a playoff berth. And both battled right to the end in the first round of the playoffs, before falling to their opponents.
Neither team had an easy road to earning second place in the district. For Wharton, two straight district losses put them in a must-win situation at the end of the year against Bloomingdale. The team had faced a big deficit heading into the final period, but scored 22 unanswered points and came away with a 30-23 win, a tie-breaker over the Bulls and that coveted runner-up spot in Class 8A-District 6.
Sunlake dropped its first district game, then rallied to win their next three to earn their second place finish. A tough 28-21 win over Land O’ Lakes in October proved to be the difference between the two teams, and the difference between second and third place. In the end, the Seahawks’ 3-1 record was good enough for runner-up status in Class 6A-District 6.
While those were satisfying finishes for each school, it was really just the end of the regular season: Both teams then entered a separate 32-team regional tournament to determine the state champion. But for both clubs, the beginning of their playoffs would also be the end. Wharton fell in their playoff opener to Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Panthers, 37-10, while Sunlake was a field goal short to the Gainesville Hurricanes, 17-14.
Sunlake Head Coach Bill Browning explained that, despite the loss, he was impressed with the way his team played.
“Gainesville’s a very talented team. They have a ton of speed,” he said. “We played exceptionally well. Physically, we beat them up. The effort was fantastic. Close ballgame.”
The Seahawks out-gained the Hurricanes and had a lead late in the game, but some untimely penalties and a late surge by Gainesville ended their season.
For Wharton, although the final score indicated the game wasn’t close, it really didn’t break open until the final period. The Wildcats were behind 14-3 at halftime and still within two scores in the fourth quarter. Head Coach David Mitchell said it was a few game-changing snaps and some self-inflicted wounds that turned the tide against them.
“They scored based on big plays,” he said. “We had problems with penalties. That’s what hurt us a lot.”
While he didn’t want Wharton to end their year with a loss, Mitchell believes they had a good season and already is looking toward next year. He has a number of returning players, and several of them will participate in other high school sports, which he said will help them on the gridiron.
In 2014, the key will be keeping them on top of their grades (and eligible to play sports), focused and ready for the new season.
Browning has his team looking forward to 2014 as well. He said the Seahawks have plenty of good talent returning — especially on offense — and they’ll be able to use some of the school’s junior varsity players, who enjoyed an 8-0 season this year.
Looking back, the coaches know that making the playoffs is an achievement in itself, both for themselves and the players who work so hard to get there. And for those graduating, many can look back on not just a good year, but a good career at their respective schools.
“For some of those players, it’s the third opportunity (to participate in the playoffs) in three years for them. That’s pretty good,” Mitchell said.
And Browning agrees. “For the kids coming back we’ll have to learn from it (the playoff loss), and for the seniors, we had a great senior bunch. They’re the winning-est senior class in the short history of the school.”