Land O’ Lakes High School athletics department underwent a search for a new head football coach in 2018.
The school again is heading back to the drawing board to find the next leader of its varsity football program, a mere two years later.
Chad Walker, who coached the Gators in 2018 and 2019, resigned from his post to become the head football coach at Cambridge Christian School in Tampa; the private school made the announcement official earlier this month.
Walker’s exit from Land O’ Lakes marks the only varsity head football coaching vacancy in Pasco County this offseason.
Walker undoubtedly has big shoes to fill at his latest stop. He replaces Bob Dare, who in 11 seasons steered Cambridge Christian to five straight playoff appearances, including a trip to the 2A state title game in 2015. Dare also is Cambridge’s all-time winningest football coach, with 72 victories. Walker takes over a team that went 8-3 last season and reached the 2A regional semifinals, losing to Admiral Farragut.
Walker’s tenure at Land O’ Lakes was somewhat of a mixed bag, after he replaced former coach Brian Wachtel, who held the post for seven seasons from 2011 to 2017.
In Walker’s first season in 2018, the Gators went 7-3, narrowly missing the playoffs, but achieving its first winning campaign since 2013, restoring some confidence in the historic program.
Perhaps just as important that year, the Gators finally supplanted crosstown foe Sunlake High in the annual “Butter Bowl” rivalry game — the first such victory in eight years. (Land O’ Lakes did win the Butter Bowl game in 2011, but it was later forfeited due to recruiting violations.)
The 2018 team also saw wins over Citrus, Cypress Creek, Lakeland Christian, Pasco, Anclote and Fivay high schools, respectively.
Walker’s second season was a reversal of fortune, though.
The 2019 team slumped to a 2-8 mark, its only wins coming against Freedom and Zephyrhills Christian schools. And, most of the team’s losses were blowouts, with a 31-point loss, three 40-plus point losses and two 50-plus point losses, among others. All told, the Gators were outscored 137-363.
The letdown season was a bit surprising, as the team returned All-Conference quarterback Ethan Forrester and added a couple of prominent assistant coaches, including former NFL players Aveion Cason and Kelvin Kinney. The team, however, graduated about two dozen seniors from the prior season, including eight All-Conference selections.
Walker joined Land O’ Lakes as a 33-year-old with a background as a veteran college football assistant, with stops at Division I FCS, Division II and Division III levels. He was an All-Conference tight end at Division I FCS Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, then parlayed that into a professional stint in NFL Italy and the European Federation of American Football. While at Land O’ Lakes, he worked for Tampa-based Applied Science and Performance Institute (ASPI), which provides advanced training and development to college and pro football players and other athletes.
The next leader of the Gators’ program will become the sixth football coach in school history. Besides Walker and Wachtel, previous head coaches were Matt Kitchie, John Benedetto and Dan Sikes.
For many years, Land O’ Lakes had one of the top football programs in Pasco County, earning a string of 14 straight playoff appearances from 1997 to 2009 under coaches Benedetto and Kitchie.
But, the team hasn’t made the playoffs since, as recent success of other programs in the county — as well as an ever-challenging district — have made winning consistently a tall task.
The team will have to groom a new starting quarterback with the graduation of Forrester, but the bulk of the roster is expected to return in 2020.
Published January 22, 2020