For the third straight week, the Land O'Lakes High football team is in a must-win situation. If the Gators are not victorious this time, they can kiss the playoffs goodbye.
Last week, the Gators (4-4 overall, 3-1 in Class 5A, District 8) saw their shot at the Sunshine Athletic Conference title disappear after a loss to Zephyrhills. Two weeks ago, Land O'Lakes lost to Tarpon Springs and fell into a first-place tie in the district with Springstead (6-2, 3-1) and Tarpon Springs (5-3, 3-1).
A win tonight over River Ridge (3-5, 2-2), which is coming off two consecutive playoff appearances, would ensure Land O'Lakes a post-season berth. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. at Gator Stadium.
"This is the third week in a row we need to get our kids up for a game," Land O'Lakes head coach John Benedetto said. "This became a big game when we lost to Tarpon Springs."
Although Land O'Lakes won the first three meetings with River Ridge and the Royal Knights have won the past three games, Benedetto downplays talk of a rivalry.
"We don't have a rivalry," Benedetto said. "It seems like we're stuck in the corner of the county by ourselves."
Gulf, Ridgewood, River Ridge and Hudson are bunched up together on the west side while Pasco and Zephyrhills are logical rivals on the east side.
Benedetto joked that his team should play Gaither, the 6A-5 school in northern Hillsborough county. "They're the closest," he said.
The Gators will be without Alex Perez tonight. The senior wingback, sidelined occasionally with shoulder injuries during the past two years, left the Tarpon Springs game with a knee injury and his season is over. Perez will be replaced by Acie Williams and Javier Perez (no relation), a recent call-up from the unbeaten junior varsity team.
"He's the next Alex Perez," Benedetto said of Javier Perez, who caught both balls thrown his way last week against Zephyrhills.
But the younger Perez is not yet the game-breaker Alex Perez has been. In just four games this year, Alex Perez had five receptions for 150 yards and 20 carries for 252 yards. He also scored three touchdowns.
The Gators still have their No. 1 weapon in Keven Barber. The senior tailback has surpassed the 500-yard rushing mark for the third straight year, scored eight touchdowns in eight games and became Land O'Lakes' single-game rushing leader with 216 yards in a win over Gulf. Barber is the perfect fit for the Gators' ball control offense.
"It's very important that we control the clock (against River Ridge), control the line of scrimmage and let Keven Barber do his thing," Benedetto said.
If all goes according to Benedetto's plan, Land O'Lakes will make the playoffs for the first time since back-to-back district titles in 1992 and 1993.