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LAND O’LAKES — At every stop in his 21-year coaching career, Bill Browning has taken a downtrodden, overlooked team and turned it into a contender.
And at each of his three head coaching jobs, there was a signature victory early in Browning’s tenure that catapulted his team into the area consciousness.
Browning was named football coach at Springstead in 1987, taking over a program that had just 20 wins against 70 losses in nine seasons.
“It took a couple of years, but we got things going,” Browning said. “I think the big win there was when we beat a Wildwood team that was state ranked that year.”
Same thing at Hernando, where he coached eight seasons (1996-2003) and resurrected a moribund program saddled with disciplinary problems.
“The first year there was rough. I was down to 18 kids at one point because I had to boot some guys off that didn’t want to conform. The second year, we had a big win early and it kind of spring boarded us,” said Browning, who won a district title with the Leopards in his second season and compiled a 44-41 record.
Now in his fourth season at Sunlake, Browning recalls the Seahawks’ upset of Gulf last season — a 35-14 victory over the undefeated Buccaneers after Sunlake lost its first two games by a combined 76-9 — as the win that put Sunlake on the area map.
“We had a brutal week of practice going into the Gulf game,” he said. “We made a stand. The kids really played hard, and it kind of continued over after that. In building a program, you need a signature win against somebody that is good and has been good for a few years.”
Sunlake finished last season 4-6 and was competitive in all of its losses after the Gulf win, save for a 42-14 drubbing by Land O’Lakes.Friday, Gulf will get its chance at redemption as the 3-0 Buccaneers travel to 2-0 Sunlake.
“We’re not taking (Gulf) lightly at all,” Sunlake junior linebacker Nick Morrison said. “They’re undefeated, so they’re doing something right. We’re going in there completely ready to play.”
Last season, Sunlake won mainly behind a defense that yielded few yards. The offense was a work in progress, averaging only 15 points a game.
In two victories in 2010, Sunlake has scored a combined 88 points.
The biggest difference? Senior quarterback Jacob Jackson, a dual threat who sees the field well, is not afraid to stand in the pocket an extra second to deliver a pass and will take on defenders head first with his bruising running style.
Jackson struggled at times in his first full season in the Sunlake offense, but with a year of experience under his belt, the hard-to-tackle signal caller has flourished.
“He’s the most underrated quarterback in the Tampa Bay area. I really think that,” said Browning, who will collect the 100th win of his coaching career with a victory tonight. “He’s a throw threat and a run threat. He’s tough to defend, and we have some weapons around him now.”
Weapons like an offensive line that shredded the opposition to the tune of 431 yards rushing through two victories and allowed Jackson ample time to set up in the pocket.
Or junior running back Rashaud Daniels, who ran for three touchdowns in the Seahawks’ season-opening win.
And don’t forget about that stingy defense, which would have pitched consecutive shutouts if not for the opening drive against Wiregrass Ranch when the Bulls came out in a no huddle offense the Seahawks hadn’t prepared for.
“We’re for real this year,” Morrison said. “Teams actually have to watch out for us. We have all the weapons we need to make a run at the district title.”