We’re rolling out daily district previews for all 78 varsity football teams in the area. Today we look at a competitive Pasco/Hernando County district.
The district had a fierce three-team battle last season, and don’t be surprised if it heads in that direction again as defending champion Springstead, runnerup Sunlake and Land O’Lakes all return key components. The Gators finished on the outside of the district battle despite an 8-2 record, and the trio had a combined 28-6 mark. Among Tampa Bay districts, only 6A-8’s top three teams — Armwood, Jefferson and Hillsborough — were better at 31-6.
Sunlake loses nine of 11 starters on defense and Springstead has to replace Player of the Year Tyler Mahla in an offense heavily reliant on the quarterback, which leaves Land O’Lakes. The Gators return the best quarterback in the district in James Pensyl, almost all of his weapons on offense like leading rusher Larenz Scroggins and receivers Kamal Wells and Ethan Weilant. While they have to replace some people on defense, we think the Gators return more than enough to make them the preseason favorite — but only by a hair. Heck, we wouldn’t be surprised if this one requires a three-team Monday tiebreaker to settle.
Next in line
Pick one: Sunlake or Springstead. Between the two, you have both of the top running backs in the district (the Seahawks’ 1,500-yard bulldozer Nathan Johnson or Springstead’s 1,000-yard rusher Daniel Wright) and arguably the top linebackers (Sunlake’s Austin Yeloushan and Springstead’s Conor Ross, a pair of physical, hard-hitting tackling machines). Both teams have holes to fill on both sides, and their Week 4 game could offer up another exciting finish like last year’s Springstead victory on a touchdown with 48 seconds left.
Mitchell was 6-4 last year — but only 1-3 in the district — and lost a lot of talent. New coach Andy Schmitz, however, will be opening up the offense, and if senior quarterback Alec Lambert can take full command behind a strong offensive line, don’t count out the Mustangs.
4 Straight 6-4 seasons for Mitchell, but no playoffs
5 Games in which Land O’Lakes’ James Pensyl threw for more than 250 yards
7 Straight seasons Mitchell has been .500 or better, tops in the district
36-7 Sunlake’s record the past four seasons
201 Yards receiving for Fivay’s Trenton Soto in last season’s final game
439 More rushing yards Sunlake’s Nathan Johnson had than the entire Land O’Lakes team
Players to watch
QB James Pensyl, Sr., Land O’Lakes: The Oregon State commitment, now 6 feet 7 and a solid 220 pounds, is easily the best quarterback in the district. And in the Gators’ fast, pass-happy attack, he could better last year’s 2,300 yards passing and 22 touchdowns.
LB Conor Ross, Sr., Springstead: Ross, who had a team-high 114 tackles and six sacks, tore his ACL before the Eagles’ playoff run but is healthy once again.
WR Trenton Soto, Sr., Fivay: Soto had 627 yards receiving and seven touchdowns last season to lead the Falcons. He’ll be the main target and could even get carries as a back.
G/LB Devontay Taylor, Jr., Mitchell: Coach Andy Schmitz calls him the “real deal,” and with an athletic, imposing 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame, Taylor is one of the few offensive linemen who also plays basketball.
LB Austin Yeloushan, Sr., Sunlake: The Seahawk defender is one of Tampa Bay’s best and should make a huge impact this season. Last year, he had 83 tackles, including 23 for a loss, seven sacks and an interception.
Mark your calendar
Sunlake at Land O’Lakes, Oct. 17: Last year, Land O’Lakes lost the only two games it could not afford to lose, to district leaders Sunlake and Springstead. Despite going 8-2, the Gators were home for the playoffs, and to ensure that doesn’t happen again the Gators will have to at least split those games this year. They host the Seahawks first in what should be one of Pasco County’s most intense and raucous affairs this season.
Returning district leaders
Rushing yards: Sunlake’s Nathan Johnson, 1,504
Rushing TDs: Johnson, 16
Passing yards: Land O’Lakes’ James Pensyl, 2,345
Passing TDs: Pensyl, 22
Receiving yards: Fivay’s Trenton Soto, 627
Receiving TDs: Soto, 7
Tackles: Mitchell’s Larry Couch, 136
Sacks: Sunlake’s Austin Yeloushan, 7
Interceptions: Multiple players returning with 1
Predicted order of finish
From an anonymous coach in the district
2. Land O’Lakes
“We have to worry about trying to get better each week. Our district is so tough that we have to take it week by week. I think four of the toughest teams in the whole area are in our district.” — Fivay coach Chris Taylor
Staff writer Rodney Page and correspondents Derek J. LaRiviere and Darek Sharp contributed to this report.