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LAND O'LAKES // Gators' 1995 goal: to improve

(ran PT, CI, HT editions)

Land O'Lakes fell back in the pack last year after capturing two straight district titles. And although the Gators are not likely to return to championship form in the realigned Class 5A, District 7, topping a 3-7 record is a distinct possibility.

Coach John Benedetto has been known to call a trick play here and there, but for the most part, the Gators thrive on ball control. Simplifying plays for a large contingent of underclassmen _ which includes 10 sophomores _ will keep it that way.

"Offensively, we've always felt we've been fairly simple in what we've done," Benedetto said. "We just want to try to do a few plays well. Sometimes you find you try to do too much."

Leading Land O'Lakes' version of smash-mouth football is an interior offensive line that averages more than 6 feet 2{ and 256 pounds. That excludes 6-1, 179-pound tight end Erick Cribbs.

"They may not be the most experienced offensive line we've ever had, but they're certainly the biggest," Benedetto said.

Passing game: The Gators start an inexperienced quarterback for the second consecutive season. Matt Connor is the favorite, with Erik Shafer, a former receiver who quarterbacked the junior varsity last year, waiting in the wings. The possession receiver is Barett Cornish, and Jayar Banez is the deep threat. Other receivers are Eric Rapp, Shawn Burns and Shane Fahey.

Running game: Teddy Pennington, last year's leading rusher with 397 yards and five touchdowns, is joined by fellow returning seniors Chris Pelham and Wes Harrell. Sophomore Keven Barber, a 1,000-yard rusher for the JV team, could have an immediate impact.

Offensive line: Senior Jason Gray played more on the defensive line last year after starting on offense as a sophomore. The 6-2, 263-pound tackle is the anchor of this group. Tommy Kamp is the other tackle, Lance Meredith is at center and the guards are Cory Lane and Eric Nelsestuen, a 6-4, 268-pound junior.

Defensive line: Jason Mateo joins Gray, Lane and Cribbs up front with Nelsestuen and Steven Mofford available to fill in.

Linebackers: Harrell, Rapp, Barber and Meredith get the nods here, but backups will have to emerge to give these two-way starters a rest.

Secondary: Pennington and Pelham return. Newcomers include Shafer, Burns, Fahey and Connor.

Kicking: Record-setting kickers Bert Strickland and Robbie Focht are no longer around. That is an advantage the Gators had gotten used to. Shafer is the punter, with Cornish and Julio Cuadrado battling it out for placekicking duties.

The coach: Benedetto enters his 19th year with a 96-90 record. The Gators should get him his 100th win sometime this season.

Outlook: The offensive line should give Land O'Lakes a strong ground game, just the way Benedetto likes it.

"Our philosophy is to try to control the clock; to run a lot of offensive plays and keep the ball away from the opposition," Benedetto said.

AT A GLANCE

Coach: John Benedetto, 19th year (96-90).

Assistant coaches: Tom Carter, Al Claggett, Jerry English, Bill Gebauer, Rock Ridgeway and Tim Stevens.

Colors: Blue and gold.

Stadium: Gators Stadium, off U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes (2 miles south of State Road 52 and 4 miles north of State Road 54).

Class: 5A, District 7.

Playoff history

1978: Lost to Bartow 19-0.

1987: Lost to Sanford Seminole 16-7.

1988: Lost to Oviedo 24-6.

1992: Lost to Leesburg 47-0.

1993: Beat Lakewood 21-7; lost to Alachua Santa Fe 41-0.

1994 results (3-7)

at Hudson 30-0 W

River Ridge 19-6 L

Hernando 21-13 L

at Tampa Jesuit 28-3 L

Central 23-7 W

at Springstead 21-7 L

at Pasco 48-7 L

Ridgewood 27-7 W

at Zephyrhills 27-17 L

Gulf 37-30 (OT) L

Did you know?

Land O'Lakes has only had two head coaches in its history. John Benedetto took over in 1977.

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