Once an afterthought, Sunlake-Pasco now is one of the most anticipated regular-season openers in the Tampa Bay area. Here are three story lines for Friday night's game.
For Pasco, beating Sunlake used to be a given, not a goal.
The Seahawks started their program in 2007, and they lost the first four games by at least 20 points.
But after not meeting in 2011 and 2012, the Pirates found out just how much Sunlake had improved in last year's season opener. 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 kinds of shocked at what happened in the end."
The loss had lingering effects for Pasco, which started 2-3 before reeling off five straight victories to make the playoffs as a district runnerup. The five regular-season losses for McHugh were his most since going 6-4 in his first season.
Sunlake, meanwhile, used the momentum of that signature win to finish 9-2 and make the playoffs for the second time in school history.
"Most kids have short memories, so I don't know how 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 on 18 carries. It was the only game Johnson did not rush for at least 100 all year. Said McHugh: "We have to stop their big boy."
The difference for Sunlake in last year's game was its 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 a line that returns three starters.