The real football season begins tonight as five North Suncoast teams embark on a quest to win a state championship.
The last (and only) local school to take the title? Pasco in 1992.
The Pirates are undefeated again and the favorite to make the deepest postseason run, but check out how any one of these team could still be playing four weeks from now.
Where it all began
The seminal moment in each team’s season.
Hernando, 56-0 win over Tavares (Week 6): After a heartbreaking four-point loss to Dunnellon, Hernando stood at 1-1 in the district, needing a victory just to stay in the playoff chase. Tavares was 2-0 in district, including a shutout of Eustis and 41-35 win over Nature Coast that spanned four days, but the Bulldogs had no answer for the Hernando ground attack. The Leopards only attempted one pass and rushed for 458 yards and eight touchdowns while holding Tavares to 100 yards of total offense in a convincing rout.
Land O’Lakes, 29-21 win over Sunlake (Week 9): The Gators’ 13-season playoff streak was in serious jeopardy after falling to Pasco 20-14 the week prior and trailing Sunlake 14-10 at the half. But the Gators overcame a sluggish start, using two lengthy second half drives to rally against previously unbeaten Sunlake. QB Stevie Weatherford hit TE Kent Taylor on a 13-yard pass to pull to within 17-14, and after surrendering a long touchdown run to Sunlake’s Jacob Jackson, Weatherford ran into the end zone on an option keeper for the winning score. A week later, the Gators clinched their 14th straight playoff appearance.
Pasco, 37-14 win over South Sumter (Week 3): South Sumter soundly defeated the Pirates by 25 points the year before. So, it became important for Pasco to make a statement against the Raiders, which it did by opening a 34-7 lead by the fourth quarter. South Sumter finished a dismal 2-8 this season, but, hey, they were 3-7 the year before when they upended the Pirates. The Pirates cleared a mental hurdle with this win, going on to win all 10 regular-season games.
Springstead, 31-28 win over West Port (Week 8): On a day when the father of coach Bill Vonada passed away, the Eagles rallied late to win one for their coach and their playoff hopes. QB Brian Beeker put the Eagles ahead for good with a 47-yard touchdown run, and DB Karlos Delgado blocked a 28-yard West Port field goal with 38 seconds left to score an emotional victory that saved the Eagles’ season.
Wiregrass Ranch, 31-28 loss to Clearwater Central Catholic (Week 5): Even in defeat, the manner in which the Bulls responded in the second half after falling behind 24-7 would be a turning point that paved the way for their first playoff appearance. The Bulls outscored CCC 21-7 after halftime but couldn’t quite close the deal. They went on to win their next four, however, including a 20-16 victory three weeks later over Tarpon Springs that ultimately decided the district championship.
Five picks to score
QB Brian Beeker, Springstead: Perhaps no player in the postseason gets as much out of his body than Beeker, the engine of the Eagles’ offense. At 5-foot-8, 160 pounds, Beeker might not have the measurables, but he has plenty of heart. He has rushed for nearly 1,100 yards and thrown for more than 600 with 13 touchdowns.
RB Alvin Delaine, Hernando: The senior hasn’t quite put up the numbers he did a year ago, but that’s, in part, due to an emphasis on defense. Delaine is still the heart and soul of the Leopards offense. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark rushing for the second straight year and has scored 22 touchdowns.
QB Jacob Guy, Pasco: The Pirates have so many weapons to choose from, their most valuable asset is the Guy that can get the ball to all of them. The junior, who has 28 touchdowns (25 passing, three rushing), has uncanny accuracy and is unflinching in the face of pressure.
WR Will Irwin, Land O’Lakes: Need to get downfield in a hurry? Just send it Irwin’s way. The senior wideout averages 23 yards a catch— he has 42 receptions— and has 16 touchdowns, double the amount of any other Gators receiver.
QB James Tringali, Wiregrass Ranch: The senior quarterback set single-season school records for passing yardage (1,400) and touchdowns (12) and has been the catalyst behind the Bulls’ maiden playoff voyage.
By the numbers
5.7 Points a game Hernando’s defense has allowed since 13-9 loss to Dunnellon.
45 Scoring average for Pasco, which has found the end zone 56 times this season.
76: Sacks recorded by Land O’Lakes, an average of seven a game.
Five breakout defenders
An offense’s worst nightmare
DE Thomas Bronson, Hernando: 13 sacks, five forced fumbles and 75 tackles this season from the senior co-captain.
LB Jackson Cannon, Land O’Lakes: The Gators’ team leader for tackles has registered 15.5 sacks this season.
DE Dwayne Houston, Wiregrass Ranch: Along with fellow end Matt Terry, will be counted on heavily to shut down Springstead’s option attack.
DE Mark Landry, Pasco: Steady senior with a nose for the football has 61 tackles and seven sacks on the season.
DL Lou Wendelstedt, Springstead: Creates havoc in the trenches and leads the Eagles in sacks with 10.
The X factor
Three that could make the difference
QB Ryan Bird, Land O’Lakes: Tough to put it all on the shoulders of the junior quarterback, who has just one start. But he’ll have to fill in effectively for an offense that relies heavily on its quarterback making the smart read.
RB Nick Lomba, Wiregrass Ranch: Senior with 11 touchdowns on the ground will be counted on to keep the chains moving and the ball away from the Eagles’ methodical offensive attack.
RB Devean Huff, Springstead: Missed time midway through the season with a leg injury, but has averaged 134 yards rushing in the past three games to take some of the pressure off Beeker.
They said it:
“You never want to ruin momentum, but I think the bye week came at an ideal time. It gave us a chance to step back and appreciate the season for what it was and then heal up for the postseason.” — Springstead coach Bill Vonada, on his team’s bye week last week
“I think this season, we evolved from a football team to a football program. We’re no longer just a team out there playing football. We’re at the point where we know how to win and we expect to win.” — Wiregrass Ranch coach Jeremy Shobe
Photo: Land O' Lakes' Jackson Cannon