The end zone lies 98 yards away, and Sunlake trails Ocala Vanguard by seven in the Class 6A playoff opener.
“I wasn’t thinking about the 98 yards,” receiver Eddie Burgos said. “I’m thinking we’ve got to score.”
They needed eight plays, three minutes, two tipped passes and one gutsy decision to drive those 98 yards and advance to Friday’s region semifinal at Gainesville. This is how they did it.
98 yards to go
Because Vanguard’s running game has been strong, Sunlake’s first play is aggressive. Quarterback Cameron Stoltz drops into the end zone and hits Burgos on an out for a 12-yard gain.
“The first one definitely gave us some breathing room,” coach Bill Browning said. “It gave everyone some confidence that, hey, we can get this done.”
86 yards to go
It’s third and 10, and Stoltz is almost out of time. He pumps right as a defensive end barrels over a running back and closes in.
Stoltz, a right-handed senior, rolls to his left and launches the ball 40 yards across his body. A defender grazes it late.
“I couldn’t put enough on it,” Stoltz said.
Sunlake has had good luck with tipped balls. A Land O’Lakes defensive back deflected a pass into Burgos’ right arm for the game-clinching touchdown last month.
The Seahawks get lucky again. The ball sails to a diving Jamal Jones to keep the drive alive.
“Dude barely touched it,” Jones said.
56 yards to go
Fullback Jerome Samuels lunges for a yard.
55 yards to go
Stoltz entered the season as an untested leader after backing up star Jacob Jackson last fall. He learned poise from watching one of Pasco County’s top passers, but no one knew how he’d respond in the fourth quarter of a playoff game with a defensive end attacking him from his blind side.
“Physically he has the ability to throw the football,” Browning said. “It was just a lot of the mental aspects of the game, handling frustration and adversity better …”
He handles this blind-side blitz well, firing a pass to Ricardo Williams for 10 yards. On film, coaches call it his best read of the night.
45 yards to go
Sunlake has been here before.
Against Nature Coast, Sunlake gave up a touchdown and two-point conversion with eight minutes left to fall behind 8-7. Stoltz responded with a winning 60-yard touchdown pass to Rashaud Daniels down the right sideline.
“We can do this again,” Daniels said.
With the same play.
Stoltz sees a linebacker guarding the speedy Daniels one-on-one. It’s the mismatch Sunlake has wanted all night.
Stoltz rolls right and lobs a pass to Daniels, who races down the right sideline before being shoved out at the 1.
“Same exact thing,” Stoltz said.
1 yard to go
The Seahawks’ program rose in the weight room with an offensive line that bulked up to an average of 269 pounds. With the game at stake, Browning calls on the county’s biggest line to save the season.
The line surges, opening a hole between the right tackle and tight end. Stoltz squeezes in. Sunlake trails 21-20.
Stoltz gets out of the pile, tosses the ball to a referee and jogs off.
“He kept his composure extremely well — just like he did in the last seconds against Nature Coast,” Browning said. “When it comes crunch time, you can’t count him out from leading us into the promised land.”
But Sunlake isn’t there yet.
1 yard to go
Ninety-eight yards are behind them, but one more remains after Vanguard jumps offside on the extra-point attempt.
Daniels lines up at running back behind Samuels but motions out right. A defender follows him, so eight defenders are bunched inside instead of nine.
Samuels takes the handoff and sees a blob up the middle.
“It was just a giant pile,” Samuels said. “I was like, ‘All right, this’ll work.’ ”
Samuels soars over his linemen to the right and crosses the goal line. Sunlake takes a 22-21 lead with six minutes left, and the defense holds on for the first playoff victory in school history.
But it’s not until the next morning that the Seahawks begin to understand the 98-yard drive with the tipped passes and gutsy calls that led to their biggest win.
“To other people it was just a playoff game,” Daniels said. “To us it was something, you’ve got to see it bigger than what it was. … You just wake up the next day like, wow, a program like this did it.”
Building a program
In five seasons, Sunlake has grown into a region semifinalist. Here are some key dates in the Seahawks’ journey from their first season to their first playoff victory.
April 13, 2007: Sunlake hires Bill Browning as coach. Browning had previously taken Springstead and Hernando to the playoffs.
Aug. 20, 2007: Sunlake opens its doors for the first day of school.
Aug. 31, 2007: The Seahawks’ football program debuts with a 50-0 loss to a River Ridge team that had lost 23 games in a row. Sunlake finishes its inaugural season 0-10.
Sept. 5, 2008: Corey Wegener’s 28-yard field goal clinches the first win in program history — a 19-10 victory over River Ridge. “We’ve come a long way,” Browning said after the game, “but we always stayed positive through all of the struggles.” The struggles continue, as Sunlake finishes winless for the rest of the year.
Oct. 15, 2010: QB Jacob Jackson’s six-touchdown game leads Sunlake to its most lopsided win, 59-0 over Zephyrhills. The victory gives the Seahawks a 6-0 start and secures the program’s first winning season.
Oct. 29, 2010: Sunlake loses 29-21 to Land O’Lakes. That, coupled with the following week’s 49-10 loss to Pasco, ends the Seahawks’ postseason hopes.
Oct. 20, 2011: Behind a punishing defense, the Seahawks knock off rival Land O’Lakes, 21-10, for the first time. “There’s a new sheriff in town,” Browning told his team after the game.
Oct. 28, 2011: A goal-line defensive stand halts River Ridge and gives the Seahawks a 20-13 victory. The triumph seals the runnerup spot in Class 6A, District 6 and secures Sunlake’s first playoff berth.
Nov. 18, 2011: QB Cameron Stoltz leads a 98-yard touchdown drive in the closing minutes to beat Ocala Vanguard, 22-21, in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs. It is the Seahawks’ first playoff victory.
Friday: Sunlake travels to Gainesville for a chance to advance to the region final.