Coach: Brian Wachtel (fourth season, 12-18)
Last season: 8-2
Colors: Blue and gold
Stadium: John Benedetto Stadium, 20325 Gator Lane, Land O’Lakes
Playoff history: 1978, 1987, 1988, 1992, 1993, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010
Last appearance: Lost 54-19 to Jefferson.
Aug. 29 at River Ridge, 7:30
Sept. 5 vs. Anclote, 7:30
Sept. 12 at Ridgewood, 7:30
Sept. 19 vs. Mitchell, 7:30
Sept. 26 vs. Gulf, 7:30
Oct. 10 at Hudson, 7:30
Oct. 17 vs. Sunlake, 7:30
Oct. 24 at Fivay, 7:30
Oct. 31 at Springstead, 7:30
Nov. 7 vs. Lecanto High, 7:30
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.
No. 1 Pensyl: The 6-foot-7, 220-pound lefty is coming off a breakout season (2,345 yards, 22 touchdowns) and has bulked up in the offseason. His ability to thrive in the Gators’ new offense last year has raised expectations for this fall. Pensyl threw for more than 200 yards seven times, but more importantly only threw three interceptions in 292 attempts. Now that he’s gotten his college choice (Oregon State) out of the way, he can focus on rewriting the school record book.
Passing the Rock: The Gators were one of the few teams around last year that passed for twice as many yards as they rushed for. The rushing attack netted only 1,065 yards on 4 yards a carry. The ground game, with the return of leading rusher Larenz Scroggins (588 yards), has to be better, especially in big games. In those critical losses to Sunlake and Springstead, running backs managed 15 yards on 21 carries.
Simple: Coach Brian Wachtel doesn’t have any magical changes in store for the upcoming season. He says for the Gators to succeed and get to the playoffs, it’s really quite simple: be disciplined and be consistent. “Those two things sum it up,” he said.
Experience: The Gators’ offensive attack was prolific last season, and eight starters return on that side of the ball. The offensive line returns Jordan Ferrante (6-1, 220), Josh Gaulden (6-2, 285) and Nick Bartel (6-0, 270), and others like Kendall Graff and Brennan Bauer got some playing time last year. With a year of playing in the Gators’ uptempo offense, Wachtel says the group should be more comfortable this season.
Swimming upstream: The departure of guys like Shaheed Salmon and Colin Irwin (233 combined tackles, almost 40 for losses) and Deointe Strozier (five interceptions) leaves the Gators having to retool the defensive side of the ball. Salmon also had 8.5 sacks and three interceptions, so his shoes may be the biggest to fill and Wachtel has turned that task over to linebacker Tommy Farmer. Wachtel said players like Connor Heaney, Darryus Lowe, Anthony Hendrix and Austin McGuire will shore up a defense that gave up 16.3 points a game last fall.
QB James Pensyl, Sr.: Bigger and better, look for another banner season from the quarterback, especially if he picks up where he left off. In his final three games last season, Pensyl’s average line was 17-for-29 for 276 yards and three touchdowns.
ATH Ethan Weilant, Sr.: Weilant can do it all, but he’ll do it mostly at wide receiver, where last year he caught 38 passes for 457 yards. He’s also the backup quarterback.
RB Larenz Scroggins, Sr.: The Gators’ leading rusher with 588 yards will be counted on to keep defenses honest against the spread attack.
DB Anthony Hendrix, Sr.: Count Wachtel as a fan: “He’s a baller, man,” the coach said. “He’s just a very, very smart football player, plays with a passion and brings it every single play.”
OL Jordan Ferrante, Sr.: A first-team All-Sunshine Athletic Conference choice last season, Wachtel says he is a technician on the offensive line.
WR Kamal Wells, Sr.: After a hot start last season (13 catches, 53 yards a game the first four weeks), Wells cooled off (51 total yards the rest of the way). If Wells returns to his early-season production it should help ease the loss of leading receiver Liam Heaney.
OL Brennan Bauer, Jr.: Bauer will step in and start at guard, and Wachtel says he has made great strides and shown up bigger and stronger than he was last year.
ATH Ben Moultrie, Sr.: A baseball player, Moultrie returns after a year away and strengthens the Gators. He loves to hit and can run, giving Wachtel some options.
LB Tommy Farmer, Jr.: Farmer moves up to varsity, and with his speed and willingness to hit, will be called on to be disruptive on defense and fill the role of pass rusher/backfield bouncer.
“I think the kids understand it (not losing the two big games again). It’s like being in the last 20 meters of a race and not being able to kick it into high gear to get across the line. They’re working hard at getting to the playoffs.” — Wachtel