Monday, June 25, 2018
Sports

Preseason defeat sharpens Sunlake High for season opener

Sunlake High School is learning there's a detrimental side to being a county football power.

Heading into his 25th year as a head coach on the North Suncoast, the last eight spanning Sunlake's existence, Bill Browning could see it unfold in last week's preseason loss to Steinbrenner.

"That game meant more to Steinbrenner than it did to us, and it should have meant more to us," said Browning, not suggesting that Sunlake overtly overlooked the Warriors, a team on the rise. But what did take place was a Steinbrenner bunch frothing to take down one of the area's new heavyweights.

As the veteran he is, Browning, calmly taking stock of the rather unexpected 20-9 defeat, sounded like he'll have his group ready to go for tonight's regular-season opener. And it will be a doozy.

The Seahawks head to Pasco, the undisputed king of the North Suncoast — that is, until the Seahawks knocked off the Pirates in last year's season opener 17-6. So put Pasco next in what will be a constant list of teams eager to knock off the Seahawks.

"Both teams are going to be ready to play Friday. I've been in that environment (in Dade City) enough times to know what to expect there at the University of Pasco," said Browning, smiling, speaking to the power of the Pirates' program but clearly not intimidated.

And in that same unassuming, yet message-received tone, Browning said Sunlake's play in the defensive secondary will simply have to improve if it wants to avoid another defeat this week.

"You can't keep practicing the same mistakes," he said after Monday's session, happy that his players were "all ears" and responded well to the defeat.

Good thing it was just preseason, says star senior running back Nate Johnson, who comes off a 1,500-yard, 16-touchdown 2013 season.

"That's in the past. Everyone's record is 0-0," he said, but with an acknowledgement that if Sunlake is going to be a great team — and that's his firm belief — they're going to have to be a lot more physical.

Johnson and the rest of the Seahawks are effusive in their praise of Browning, who spent eight years at Springstead, then nine at Hernando before starting up the Sunlake program. There were some major bumps at first, namely an 0-10 inaugural season followed by a one-win campaign. But Sunlake went 4-6 in 2009, then just missed out on the playoffs, going 8-2 the following season.

Sunlake took the next step three seasons ago, making the playoffs for the first time and taking highly-ranked Gainesville to the wire before losing 21-14 in the region semifinals. It was a return trip to the postseason last year, but the Seahawks fell apart after giving up two late scores again to Gainesville.

"I love Coach Browning. He's taught me so much as a player but also as an individual. He's like a second father to me," Johnson said.

He thinks Sunlake will be fine despite losing so many of its starters, including four-fifths of its offensive line and all but two on the entire defensive side.

Logan Wolfe, thrust into a starting role at linebacker after being mostly a fullback, agrees — and Browning is a big part of that belief. "I've played football most of my life, and I think by far he's the best coach of I've ever had," Wolfe said. "In my opinion, he's the best coach in the state of Florida."

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