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LAND O’LAKES — Land O’Lakes took a 13-year postseason streak into Sunlake on Friday, but as the fourth-quarter clock moved closer to expiring, the Gators’ playoff hopes were on full-scale life support.
Trailing for nearly the entire game, Land O’Lakes’ once promising season was slipping away, but that’s when quarterback Stevie Weatherford rescued the Gators , engineering an 80-yard drive to put Land O’Lakes in front.
The defense then finished the effort, stuffing Sunlake’s last-ditch drive in an emotionally draining 29-21 victory .
“That was our motivation. We wanted to stay alive,” Land O’Lakes coach Matt Kitchie said. “We didn’t want to be that team that doesn’t go to the playoffs.”
Sunlake (7-1, 5-1) led 21-17 after Jacob Jackson ran virtually untouched up the middle on a quarterback draw to score from 60 yards in the third quarter.
Early in the fourth, Land O’Lakes’ defense forced a punt after the Seahawks moved the ball to the Gators’ 25-yard line, and that’s when the Gators’ normally pass-happy offense, which surprised by opening the game with five straight runs, got cranking.
“Steven (Weatherford) comes over to the sideline and goes 'All right, let’s stop messing around. Let’s throw the ball,’ ” Kitchie said.
Which is exactly what the Gators (7-1, 5-1) did, marching 80 yards in 11 plays that saved their season. Weatherford threw to Jason Tello for 10 yards and a first down, and the Gators were aided by a Sunlake late hit after the Seahawks stopped the Gators on third and short . Weatherford hooked up with Nico Watts for 9 yards followed by 13 more to Tello to put the Gators on the Sunlake 18-yard line.
On second and goal from the Sunlake 4, Weatherford kept on an option play off the left side, diving into the end zone for a 23-21 Gators lead with 2:53 remaining.
“I knew once our defense got the ball back we were going to score,” Weatherford said. “I knew they couldn’t stop us. I knew we could throw the ball on them and that’s what we were going to do and it worked.”
Sunlake got the ball at its 28 for one final drive, but went backwards 9 yards in three plays and threw incomplete on fourth down. Weatherford hooked up with Will Irwin for a 21-yard touchdown with six seconds left .
“I love watching a good high school football game like this,” Kitchie said. “My job is gold, I get the best seat in the house.”
Sunlake scored on its opening drive, converting a fourth down from the Gators’ 10 when Jackson hooked up with Nick Morrison for a 10-yard score.
Land O’Lakes’ Ryan Lake tied the score at 7 with a 5-yard burst, and the Gators took the lead early in the second on Frahm Jacob’s 37-yard field goal.
Sunlake went into halftime up 14-10 when Jackson found Jamal Jones down the right sideline for a highlight-reel 31-yard catch .