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First down and a long time for Land O'Lakes football

(ran PAS edition)

Small hands gripped face masks, and groans rolled from helmets as rows of peewee football players strained to keep their heels inches off the ground.

Coaches filed between the rows, barking out instructions for the leg-lift drill and making sure everyone adhered to several other calisthenic routines.

On the outskirts of the practice field, adjacent to the Land O'Lakes Community Center on U.S. 41, girls went through a series of movements that soon would be recognized as cheering formations.

The 1996 Pasco Police Athletic League season is upon us again.

Practices for boys and girls, ages 7-15, began Monday. The first test for this year's crop of Land O'Lakes Gators will take place Aug. 24: the PPAL Jamboree, sponsored by the West Hernando Cougars at Delta Woods Park in Spring Hill in Hernando County.

Youths in four divisions _ flyweight, mighty mite, junior varsity and varsity _ will participate in those exhibition games, which be followed by 10 regular-season games and, possibly, the playoffs.

None of the Gators' football teams made the playoffs last year. In fact, the flyweights, mighty mites and JVs _ Land O'Lakes did not have enough players to field a varsity unit _ combined for just five victories.

Floyd DeForest, Land O'Lakes' new executive director, acknowledged the Gators' failures. Still, he repeatedly has said that this is the season Land O'Lakes will get back on the winning track.

"Over the last few years, we haven't had winning records, and I think that's discouraged a few kids," DeForest said. "We're going to do our best to win. You can go out and play, and you can go out and play to win. You might as well play to win."

The practice field is where it all begins. More than 100 children attended the first day of training. During the first training sessions, some boys and girls raced off to a storage building for last-minute physicals.

"It's a little hectic, but this is our first day," said Helen Kearney, the league's secretary. "They're excited. They can't wait. (Some football players) can't believe they can't hit the first day."

There will be plenty of hitting _ in pads _ once each unit has met the league prerequisite for 10 hours of conditioning.

Land O'Lakes' turnaround could begin Aug. 31, when the Gators host the East Lake Eagles in season openers for both communities.

"We're going to push hard this year, and we're going to have a good time," said Martin Liwosz, a JV assistant coach.

Winning and having fun, however, are not the only goals of the PPAL program. Flyweight cheerleader head coach Gena Clifton, whose squad was a runner-up in last year's PPAL Cheeroffs, said the league offers much more.

"The first thing I want the girls to learn is teamwork," she said. "I want the girls to learn camaraderie, how to get along with each other . . . developing friendships that last throughout the year."

Kayla Clifton and Casey Diaz, co-captains of this year's flyweight cheerleaders, said they became best friends last season.

"I learned a lot of cheers, and it was really a fun time," Diaz said.

The Gators' home games are played at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex on Collier Parkway.

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