Once an afterthought, Sunlake vs. Pasco now is one of the most anticipated regular-season openers in the Tampa Bay area. Here are three story lines to follow for Friday night’s game.
For Pasco, beating Sunlake used to be a given, not a goal.
Since the Seahawks started their football program in 2007, the Pirates have owned the series (the teams did not schedule each other from 2011-12). Pasco was so dominant, it won every meeting by at least 20 points.
But after a two-year absence, the Pirates found out just how much Sunlake had improved in last year’s season opener when the Seahawks won 17-6, snapping Pasco’s 44-game win streak against Pasco County opponents that dated to Tom McHugh’s first season as coach in 2007.
“Sunlake is a really good football team,” McHugh said. “I can’t speak for the kids because I wasn’t on the field with them, but I know as a coach I didn’t take them lightly. But you’re dealing with teenagers, and we waited and waited and waited for something to happen, and I think they were all kind of shocked at what happened in the end.”
The loss had lingering effects for Pasco, which started last season 2-3 before reeling off five straight victories to make the playoffs as a district runnerup. That was the most losses McHugh has had in a regular season since going 6-4 his first season in ’07.
Sunlake, meanwhile, used the momentum of that signature to finish 9-2 last season and make the playoffs for the second time in school history.
“Most kids have short memories, so I don’t know much they were thinking about Sunlake during the offseason,” McHugh said. “But I know we’ll be ready.”
In a rush
Sunlake’s Nathan Johnson ran for 1,504 yards last season, but he was bottled up against Pasco, gaining just 63 yards on 18 carries. It was the only game Johnson did not rush for at least 100 yards in all year. McHugh said his defense will again have to key on Johnson to have a chance to win. “We have to stop their big boy,” McHugh said of Johnson.
The difference for Sunlake last year was the play of its opportunistic defense, which recorded five sacks and forced five fumbles. Several defenders graduated, including linebacker Ben Wood and defensive back Jacob Guzman. The biggest returner is linebacker Austin Yeloushan, who had three of the five sacks. Despite losing receivers Malik Johns to graduation and Nate Craig to transfer, Pasco’s offense is in good shape, led by tight end Bowman Archibald, quarterback Grant Starling and an offensive line that returns three starters.