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Gators end a decade of frustration

What a difference a decade makes.

That's how long it had been since Land O'Lakes had beaten Tarpon Springs. So how long did it take the Gators to begin dominating in last Friday's 26-14 victory?

About a minute.

It took that long to shut down Tarpon Springs' first drive _ three plays and a punt. Land O'Lakes responded with a 51-yard drive for a touchdown, and the Gators never looked back.

The Tarpon Springs curse was lifted _ in incredible fashion.

The Gators' first half was a dream. After years of getting beaten up by the Pinellas powerhouse, Land O'Lakes took revenge with a near-perfect half of football. Two missed two-point conversion attempts were the only flaws.

"We executed extremely well against that ballclub," Land O'Lakes coach John Benedetto said. "You have to credit the intensity of our players _ they were playing almost flawlessly. Our offensive linemen are knocking guys way off the ball."

That allowed Benedetto to establish his objectives: control the ball, control the clock, establish the running game _ and don't make mistakes.

All of those objectives were met.

Trevor Lansford rushed for 89 yards on 10 carries, quarterback Cameron Metzger added 72 yards and a touchdown on eight rushes. John Middleton gained 50 yards on eight carries and scored touchdowns from 15, 5 and 1 yards out.

The defense also was powerful, holding Parkees Harris to 72 yards in the first half and only 14 after the break. Gators linebacker Geno Kett, a sophomore, is only 6-foot and 162 pounds, but he was hitting hard all over the field.

The only weapon that consistently worked for Tarpon was the passing connection from quarterback Kris Wilson to receiver John Early. They hooked up five times for 75 yards.

"As we watched the film _ and I've seen it five or six times _ we beat a pretty darn good football team," Benedetto said. "Tarpon Springs executed well. They were blocking us and moving up the field."

Did Benedetto have any reason to think his team would defeat Tarpon so solidly?

"If you had asked me about this game a week after (we beat) Hernando, I would've said yes," he said. "But after that Springstead game (a 9-7 win), I would've said no. But we had penalties and mistakes against Springstead that hurt us."

Land O'Lakes, 4-0 overall for the first time since 1983, wasn't penalized at all in the first half against Tarpon.

The Gators didn't even turn the ball over despite constant rain, while recovering two Spongers fumbles that led to scores. They didn't allow Tarpon to score in the first half though the Spongers twice had first downs inside the Gators' 10-yard-line.

Benedetto knows he probably could have preserved the shutout had he not pulled many starters in the fourth quarter.

"Our philosophy at Land O'Lakes is to play hard and win the ballgame, and then to reward the kids who haven't played a lot," he said. "With 10 minutes left, it was time to get the starters out. But to me it doesn't matter (what the score) was. I know how well we did."

Now it looks like a fight for the Class 4A, District 8 crown between the Gators and East Lake, both 2-0 in the district. Land O'Lakes has a bye this week, but plays district foe Ridgewood next week.

East Lake has taken out Ridgewood and Tarpon Springs, and Gulf and Springstead shouldn't be a problem. Odds are the Eagles will be undefeated in 4A-8 when they face the Gators.

But Benedetto won't buy into that.

"There's certainly that possibility, but I don't know," he said. "I mean, if Robbie Focht didn't kick that field goal in the final minute against Springstead, we wouldn't be 2-0 in the district, we'd be 1-1. Anything can happen."

Rams lose first: Ridgewood High prepared for East Lake's running game, but concentrated on the wrong runner.

It was Pete Apostolou, not leading rusher Jay J. Martin, who did the most damage to the Rams in a 33-8 Class 4A, District 8 win Friday. Apostolou rushed for 192 yards and three touchdowns and Martin had 94 yards and one TD.

"They were looking for Jay J. to get the ball, so the openings were there for Pete," said East Lake coach Rob Jenkins. "We had confidence he could run it, and Jay J. did a great job of blocking for him."

After East Lake stopped Ridgewood at the Eagles 1-yard line late in the first half, it took just three minutes to drive 99 yards, with Apostolou doing the damage. The tailback broke through the middle and went 43 yards for the touchdown, lunging the final 2 yards to make it 13-0 with 27 seconds left in the first half.

Apostolou also scored on a 74-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and had a 4-yard TD run.

"They had a heck of a ground game," said Ridgewood coach John Castelamare. "They just took it to us."

Mistakes on kick returns cost Ridgewood at the start of the second half. First, the Rams failed to cover Steve Riggs' bouncing kickoff, apparently thinking the ball was dead, and East Lake recovered at the 15. Two plays later, quarterback Mark Moore scored from the 2 to make it 19-0.

On the ensuing kickoff, East Lake surprised Ridgewood with an onside kick and recovered at the Rams 43. East Lake moved to the 4 in six plays, and Apostolou finished the drive standing up.

East Lake accumulated 384 yards rushing on 54 carries. Ridgewood, which had Pasco County's top two rushers _ Carson (304 yards in three games) and Robbie Blankenship (286) _ was held to 77 yards on 27 attempts.

Cobras reach 3-1: Hudson's 14-13 victory over Central on Friday night put the Cobras in position to do something they haven't done in a while _ contend for a district title.

Of course, Hudson (2-0 in Class 3A, District 7 and 3-1 overall) still must play second-ranked Pasco and preseason top-10 team Hernando. The Cobras are off Friday and meet Hernando on Oct. 16.

Friday, Hudson held on to its 14-13 halftime lead despite only having 10 plays from the line of scrimmage in the second half.

Bucs fall in OT: Gulf High coach Wilbur Lofton knows the pivotal play of his team's 3-0 loss to Springstead came long before its soggy overtime conclusion.

"That inadvertent whistle in the third quarter just killed us," Lofton said. "I hate to lose one like that."

Buccaneers fans will moan all week about Julius Mendoza's too-perfect bootleg run in the third quarter. His trickery fooled 12 people on the field _ 11 Springstead defenders and one game official.

And in a matter of seconds, Gulf's best chance at its first win of the season was gone with the wind that the linesman mistakenly blew through his whistle.

Mendoza had faked a handoff to his running back, then took off around the end. The running back was stopped immediately, and the official blew his whistle, thinking the play was over. Mendoza, meanwhile, had only one more defender to juke and the Bucs would have had a precious lead on a rainy night that washed out both offenses.

Instead, the other officials haltingly blew their own whistles to stop Mendoza. The referee saw that the ball was in Mendoza's hands, 20 yards upfield, but sided with his partner and declared that the down should be replayed.

"The ref all the way on the other side of the field made the call," Lofton said. "(Mendoza) was clear _ he was gone."

For the record, running back Mike Pike gained 2 yards on that replayed down and the Bucs were forced to punt.

The Bucs had a sporting chance to claim their first victory in the closing seconds of regulation play. Steve Massimo's 47-yard field goal attempt landed short, but a Springstead personal foul gave the junior kicker another chance.

This time, Massimo's 32-yard attempt sailed wide left as time expired.

A few minutes later, Springstead kicker Rene Vasquez nailed a 22-yarder to give the Eagles their victory.

Player of the week: Senior running back John Middleton scored three touchdowns in Land O'Lakes' 26-14 victory over district opponent Tarpon Springs. Middleton rushed eight times for 50 yards in the win.

Stat chat: Land O'Lakes' Trevor Lansford has taken over the county rushing lead from Ridgewood's Chris Carson. Lansford has 339 yards on 48 carries and Carson has 335 on 44. Lansford rushed for 89 yards on 10 carries in the Gators' 26-14 victory over Tarpon Springs.

_ Staff writer Jim Carson and correspondents Steve Persall and Jim Tomlin contributed to this report.

Making a list

Here's a ranking of Pasco's seven football teams:

1. Pasco 3-0

2. Land O'Lakes 4-0

3. (tie) Ridgewood 3-1

Hudson 3-1

5. River Ridge 1-3

6. (tie) Gulf 0-4

Zephyrhills 0-4

Pasco, which remains second in the state Class 3A poll, was off last week. The Pirates meet South Sumter on Friday. The Raiders are 9-1 on the road the past two years.