BROOKSVILLE — Just because Hernando started the season 0-3 doesn’t mean the Leopards forgot how to win.
The defending district champion overcame a sluggish offense and a second-half deficit Friday by blocking a punt and forcing five more turnovers in the fourth quarter to eke out a 14-13 victory over Land O’Lakes in the Class 6A, District 6 opener for both teams.
“It wasn’t the prettiest win,” first-year coach Dwayne Mobley said, “but it was a win.”
And the first regular-season win for the former Hernando star didn’t come as easily as the first few minutes suggested. The Leopards ran out to an early lead when senior Quentin Adams followed up last week’s breakout game by rushing 73 yards for a touchdown on the third play of the game.
But Land O’Lakes (1-2, 0-1) dominated defensively after that. The Gators allowed only 47 yards of offense and three first downs after the Leopards’ early score. They also recovered two fumbles and tallied five sacks — two from senior Justin Forchion — but couldn’t pull away.
“Our guys stayed in there and they fought,” Mobley said.
Land O’Lakes converted early on Hernando’s miscues. A Leopards personal foul extended a drive in the second quarter, setting up a 33-yard field goal by Andrew Dowler. Noah Hengoed recovered a Hernando fumble on the Leopards’ next possession, leading to Dowler’s 24-yard field goal just before halftime.
And quarterback Ethan Weilant led a 57-yard drive to open the second half. A 3-yard plunge by Austin McGuire gave the Gators their first lead, 13-7, with 6:33 left in the third.
“The kid’s a warrior,” Land O’Lakes coach Brian Wachtel said of Weilant, who snagged an interception on defense on Hernando’s next possession.
But the Gators’ shot at dethroning one of the North Suncoast’s top teams ended in the fourth quarter.
Senior Robert Hill Bronson, who had already blocked one punt in the first quarter, came through again in the first minute of the fourth. He sped through the line and knocked down a Gators punt, scooped the ball up and raced 33 yards for the go-ahead touchdown — the first of his high school career.
“I was thinking, ‘Run like heck,’ ” Bronson said. “I picked it up and went.”
The Hernando offense’s inability to get first downs gave Land O’Lakes five more chances after that. Each time, a Leopards defense that entered the game allowing 35 points per game answered.
“The offense, they can’t say nothing this time,” junior defensive back Troy Hambrick said.
After Bronson’s score, Hernando forced four turnovers on the Gators’ next 10 plays: a fumble recovery by Andre Southall, an interception by Hambrick, an interception tipped by Hambrick into Tyrail Hawkins’ arms, and a fumble recovery by Richard Hudson.
Land O’Lakes had one final opportunity, and backup quarterback James Pensyl converted on two long fourth downs before the Leopards corralled receiver Kamal Wells 8 yards short of the marker to seal the a pivotal — but not pretty — district win.
“We came out with a victory,” Bronson said. “That’s all that counts.”