LAND O’LAKES — Kicker Andy Dowler wrapped a hand around the football, glanced at the Land O’Lakes athletic trainers watching him, and grinned.
“Look out, James!” he yelled while lobbing the ball to a friend.
The trainers chuckled. They didn’t seem concerned about Dowler’s chances of replacing the aforementioned James, especially as the Gators head into Friday’s game against city and Class 6A, District 6 rival Sunlake.
This is James Pensyl’s first year as the Gators’ starting quarterback, and he’s already on track to topple local records. He has completed 103 of 178 passing attempts and thrown for 1,396 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“Now he understands what to do,” coach Brian Wachtel said.
A 2,000-yard passing season is not unheard of at Land O’Lakes, where Stevie, Joe and Drew Weatherford all played. The county record for passing yards in a season is 2,672, set by Pasco’s Jacob Guy.
It might seem odd that the 6-foot-6 Pensyl wasn’t the first choice for quarterback, given the numbers he’s put up this year. Ethan Weilant, now a halfback, led the Gators last year.
Weilant is a gifted athlete. His 800-meter record in track was 2:04.98 last season. But when he was injured last fall, Wachtel turned to Pensyl.
Weilant was a flexible enough player to serve the team in any position, and he wasn’t back to where he had been before the injury by spring. It became clear to Wachtel that Pensyl would become the permanent starting quarterback.
The coach didn’t rush to laud Pensyl’s performance this season, impressive though it may be. Wachtel said the junior has a strong arm, but is still learning what it takes to be a quarterback.
“He’s a captain, now, and he’s becoming a leader,” Wachtel said.
For Pensyl, the major difference is that he knows he’ll get playing time each week. Last year he worked hard but never knew whether he would be on the field.
Fridays game against Sunlake (6-1, 1-1) is a chance for Pensyl to prove he has the mentality to function against a tight defense.
There’s a lot riding on that opportunity.
The Gators (6-0, 1-0) could all but assure a postseason spot with a win. Land O’Lakes assistants predict thousands of attendees will be there. Billboards dotting the landscape near U.S. 19 advertise the televised matchup.
But Pensyl said he feels no more than the usual pregame butterflies.
“I’m looking forward to everything about it,” he said, his grin and tone confident. “I think we’re prepared.”
Pensyl has a routine. Friday, he will keep to himself, as he does every week, to ready himself for the mental aspect of the game.
He’ll eat dinner at home and come to the field, and he won’t speak to anyone. He’ll tuck headphones into his ears and listen to country music, maybe Tim McGraw or Brad Paisley. A few teammates might ask him what’s wrong.
“They used to ask,” Pensyl said, “but I think they’ve caught on by now.”
Mary Kenney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @maryknews.