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Defeats aside, coach sees hope in season

Land O'Lakes High's district hopes went up in smoke last Friday in a big loss to Pasco. The season, however, will not follow suit.

Coach John Benedetto guarantees it. He won't go to the younger kids now, prepping for next season. He won't scrap the game plan, the one that's been pumped into the heads of the seniors for four years now. He won't _ refuses _ to look ahead to next year.

Wouldn't be fair.

"I would never do that to the seniors on the team," he said. "Ever. We're going to suck it up with them."

Such decisions are admirable, even when your job is safe and your track record ensures it, even when most coaches might panic on the heel of back-to-back district championships. So while Benedetto has ripped the long white towel from his shoulder and fired it to the ground a little bit more this year during games than last, don't expect to see him throwing it in.

Because Benedetto understands. His team is 2-5 in this lost season, but is not resigned to a losing season. Three games remain, each one winnable according to the coach, and 5-5 would send his four-year players out on a high note. That may not be important to some fans of a team coming off a 10-2 season, but to this coach, it is of utmost importance.

Simply put, the talent pool on the Gators football team has dried up, like it always seems to do every two or three years at just about every other public school around. Heck, Pasco only went 5-5 last year after winning a state title.

Unless you can recruit, coaches must be prepared for the peaks and valleys that these groups of young men will push you down and pull you up from. The Gators won district titles in 1987 and '88, and had losing records every year until their next two district titles in '92 and '93.

"You get a good team, then after a few years you start heading downhill, and then you go back up the ladder," Benedetto said. "It's not difficult for us (the coaches). You just take the kids and do the best you can with them."

For those not following, the Gators are heading downhill. But the ladder is in sight. It's always in sight for Benedetto.

"We'll be back," he said. "No doubt about that."

The Gators started the year as two-time defending district champion, with a 20 wins over the two years. But they lost perhaps the best group of starters in school history, and you don't do that and keep on winning.

That, however, didn't seem to matter the first game, a blowout win over Hudson. Against River Ridge, though, the team's shortcomings came into sharp focus. A 6-6 game heading into the fourth quarter against River Ridge turned into a surprising 19-6 loss.

"We had eight or nine people going both ways, and we just ran out of gas," said Benedetto. "It was too much for us."

They have a quarterback and backfield who have to play defense, and a sophomore-laden offensive line. Traditionally, it's the kiss of death.

Even so, the following week the Gators had Hernando on the ropes with a chance to win with 6:00 left. A failed two-point conversion attempt prevented what would have been a huge win.

There have been other heart breakers _ a 14-7 loss to Springstead, and even last week's loss to Pasco. In that game, Land O'Lakes played brilliantly. For Land O'Lakes that meant few passes and ball control offense, and making Troy Hambrick look pretty human _ and only a late first half touchdown gave the Pirates a slim 14-7 halftime lead.

It fell apart in the third quarter, or more appropriately, "it blew up on us."

But for a half it was beautiful to the coach. It's been like that. Every game the Gators have played, except one, they have had a chance to win at halftime.

So forget the record, Benedetto said. Sometimes, 5-5 will do, and next year isn't really important until next year.

He feels he owes his seniors that much.