LAND O’LAKES — On Thursday before every game, Sunlake’s leading scorer sleeps with a lucky black T-shirt under his pillow.
It was a gift from a friend. White ink handwritten across it reads, “All hail Nathan Johnson 28.”
Johnson will lead the Seahawks (9-1, 3-1) when they head to Gainesville (8-2, 4-0) on Friday for the first round of the 6A playoffs.
This is Sunlake’s second postseason appearance. In 2011 the Seahawks made it past the first round but lost in the semifinals.
Last year the Seahawks barely missed the playoffs so Johnson wasn’t surprised by their success this year.
“I knew we were going to have this season,” he said. “This is how we prepared over the summer.”
Johnson, who joined the varsity halfway through last year, drives the Seahawks’ offense.
The junior is one of the county’s top backs with 1,385 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Though he hasn’t talked to any colleges, he has heard that recruiters have taken notice and have asked around.
It’s a major change from last year when Johnson played in five games and rushed for 45 total yards. But coach Bill Browning expected him to have this kind of season.
“We knew he had a lot of potential,” Browning said. “We just had to get him to run low.”
The Seahawks lost two key offensive players from last year so varsity coaches started working with Johnson early to help fill the void.
Assistant coach Matt Smith worked extensively with Johnson in the weight room during the offseason. He and Browning were impressed by Johnson’s work ethic.
“He’s hungry to learn,” Smith said. “He’s not afraid to put in the time.”
Johnson said he worked 10 times harder than he ever has in the weight room, pushed by Smith and the varsity coaches. He said they knew he could reach this point, and their certainty made him believe it, too.
Johnson has become one of Sunlake’s strongest and toughest players. The 5-foot-10, 195-pounder can bench 320 pounds and squats 500, Smith said. His next goals are improving his blocking skills and working on his speed.
Browning said Johnson knows how to spot and exploit holes in defensive lines. That, combined with an improved passing game, allowed the Seahawks to make adjustments against rival Land O’Lakes to secure a postseason berth.
Johnson shined against the Gators. Facing a defense that kept Hudson scoreless a week earlier, he scored three touchdowns, rushing for 155 yards on 33 carries.
“We had to find our identity on offense,” Browning said. “And we have.”
Asked about Friday’s game, Johnson grinned. Gainesville has held opponents to 18 points or fewer all season, but Johnson didn’t seem fazed.
“Yeah, I’m very excited,” he said. “We’re ready.”
7:30 p.m. Friday
Sunlake at Gainesville
Citrus at Springstead
Hudson at Lakewood
Tarpon Springs at Anclote
Pasco at Citra North Marion