LAND O'LAKES — Tanner Stocker has stood on the sideline of every Land O'Lakes varsity football game this season, his eyes focused sharply on every offensive snap.
"I've got a lot of reps in practices," Stocker said. "I'm ready to go in every game if (Stevie Weatherford) ever went down."
That's just what happened in the final minutes of last Friday's 20-16 win over Ridgewood to secure the Class 4A, District 8 championship. Weatherford attempted a quarterback sneak and fractured his left collarbone after a linebacker's helmet met an unprotected area between his helmet and shoulder pad.
Now Stocker, a sophomore like Weatherford, is the starting quarterback, running the first-team offense for the first time. He'll need to be a quick study with just one game before the playoffs begin.
"He was doing an awesome job," Stocker said of Weatherford. "I didn't know if I was going to get an opportunity or not."
Little is known outside of the Land O'Lakes locker room about Stocker. Judge him by what he says and how he says it and the Gators should be just fine. Stocker is polite, confident and seems to posses the swagger of a starting quarterback.
"I don't expect our team to be any different than it's been," coach John Benedetto said. "We've got a lot of good players on this football team. We've got a quarterback that can get the job done. The only difference between Tanner and Stevie is that Tanner doesn't have a whole lot of experience.
"Playing this game (Wiregrass Ranch tonight) is a very important game for him and this team."
Tonight's game against Wiregrass once was seen as nothing more than a tuneup for the playoffs, but now it's Stocker's best chance to test a live varsity defense.
Then he will try to do what no Land O'Lakes quarterback has been able to since 2003: lead the Gators to a first-round playoff win.
Land O'Lakes earned its 12th consecutive playoff berth this season, but has little to show in terms of postseason success. The loss of Weatherford was another in a string of unfortunate events as the Gators lost arguably their best player for the playoffs.
In 2005, quarterback Joe Weatherford broke his left collarbone in the first quarter of a 24-12 loss to Chamberlain in a Class 5A region quarterfinal.
In 2006, receiver Develin Robinson was suspended one game after he was ejected from the regular-season finale against Gulf and missed the Gators' 31-22 region quarterfinal loss to Chamberlain.
Last season, running back John Weatherford was lost for the season after injuring his knee during the preseason.
And now this.
"We don't say that he's our best player," Benedetto said. "What we say is that they were high-impact players."
Stocker, who has played QB since fifth grade, has thrown nine passes this season for 6 yards and rushed four times for 12 yards. Weatherford finished the season with 1,190 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
"When (Weatherford) went out it was a big loss," receiver Alex Robinson said. "We were trying to do something big for this school. But Tanner, he can step up. He's pretty good."