LAND O’LAKES — Welcome to the 1,000-yard club, Nathan Johnson.
Welcome to the club of Tampa Bay’s best running backs. But mostly, welcome to Sunlake lore.
In the biggest game in school history, Johnson was the big man on Sunlake campus, rushing for three touchdowns to lead the Seahawks to a 28-21 victory over arch-rival Land O’Lakes.
His last one is the one they’ll remember, though.
From 5 yards out, Johnson did what he does best — lowered his head and bulled forward, carrying Gators that had clamped on and carrying them into the end zone.
The Gators had a chance to tie, but four passes later, they were vanquished back up the road, back to the little town they once ruled. It’s the Land O’Seahawks.
“It was a big win, a great game,” said Sunlake coach Bill Browning.
It seemed only fitting the game would end in overtime, as both teams scored in the final three minutes to force an extra few minutes of excitement for a packed house of partisan pigskinners. It was as good a high school atmosphere as you will find. Back and forth, up and down and nerve-wracking and exhilarating. It was an environment worthy of what the players gave on the field.
The Seahawks had to win, had to beat their big brothers, their third straight victory over the Gators, four if you want to count a forfeit win in 2010.
A loss would have eliminated them from the playoffs.
It would have kicked off a long offseason.
But the Seahawks aren’t ready for one of their best seasons to be over. The Seahawks have life, and are flying high behind Johnson and a defense that came through in the clutch.
On the final four plays for the Gators, none came really close to being a touchdown. The Gators, operating exclusively out of the shotgun, can’t run. The Seahawks can.
“We thought because of that, when it went to overtime, we felt good about our chances,” Browning said.
Sunlake was going to punch it in, like it had all night when it got close. That was a fact made clearer by a penalty on the first play that started Sunlake at the 5. For Johnson, 5 yards was nothing. “I knew we were going to score then,” he said. “I was going to score.”
Johnson finished with 145 yards, but his big night only punctuated a thrilling performance by both rivals, as they entered the fourth quarter tied at 7 with Land O’Lakes punting from its own 1.
That was when things got good. Sunlake had a field goal blocked and returned by Noah Randall all the way to the Seahawk 5, setting up a touchdown pass by Land O’Lakes quarterback James Pensyl.
Sunlake answered with a 37-yard catch by Wanya Lamar, and three — count ’em three — 15-yard penalties on the play by the Gators.
Not only was it a net 82 yards, but it set Johnson up inside the 10, where he was not stopped Friday night.
On Sunlake’s next series, he bolted for runs of 18 and 10 yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown with 3:16 left.
But his place in Sunlake lore was not quite secure.
Pensyl completed a third-down pass to Ethan Weilant to effectively send the game into overtime.
Pensyl had already thrown three clutch touchdown passes, two on third down. With the game on the line in overtime, Gator fans were praying for another. But not Friday night.
Pensyl rolled to his right, and Liam Harvey slipped out to the other side.
Lamar wasn’t fooled. They had practiced against the play.
Pensyl’s pass sailed right into Lamar’s hands, and all he had to do was bat the ball down, raise his arms, then bury his smiling face in them.