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THE TOP 10 COUNTY SPORTS STORIES OF THE YEAR

No. 2

According to the Chinese Lunar Calendar, the year 2000 was the Year of the Dragon.

According to the Pasco County prep calendar, it was the Year of the Gators.

From Land O'Lakes, that is. For the Gators enjoyed tremendous success in nearly every boys sport, whether it was baseball, basketball, football, soccer or wrestling.

The playoffs, final four appearances, state championships and winning seasons were all part of the year that was at Land O'Lakes, as a remarkable senior class elevated itself to another level.

John Benedetto's football team enjoyed its fourth consecutive winning season and playoff appearance, going 7-4. The most successful class in school history finished with a 32-11 record. Two-time Sunshine Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year Godfrey Pestana enjoyed his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season and set a new school record with 4,057 career rushing yards.

In basketball, coach Dave Puhalski's Gators dominated the county and the district, compiling an impressive 27-4 record and winning Class 5A, District 10 and SAC titles. Land O'Lakes threw a veteran, versatile and determined lineup at each opponent, winning in a myriad of ways: either out-hustling opponents, out-working and executing them, or just through superior talent and force of will.

Oftentimes, it was this combination that won game after game for SAC Player of the Year Jeff Baisley, brother Brian, and a cast that included Ryan Van Blarcom, Javier Perez, David Starkey, Sam Weatherford, Miller Vaca and many more.

The best team in school history, though, could not come away with the school's first playoff win, falling 70-50 to Plant in the opening round of 5A play. But the core of that team _ the Baisleys, Van Blarcom, Starkey and Weatherford _ have become even more dominant in the team's latest incarnation this season.

In soccer, coach Mark Pearson took his team back to the final four in Tallahassee. Land O'Lakes raced out to a 25-3-1 record with a quick-strike offense and solid defense. Justin Geisler scored a school-record 53 goals last season. The stingy defense posted 11 shutouts and allowed 29 goals in as many games.

Land O'Lakes fought back from a 1-0 deficit against Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas in the Class 3A semifinal, as two quick Justin Geisler kicks gave it the lead in overtime. But then the Raiders earned a stunning 3-2 win in penalty kicks over the Gators.

"I didn't think we would go out like that, that's for sure," said Pearson afterward, shaking his head in bewilderment after losing the shootout battle 3-0. "We practice those every single day. I never thought we'd lose on penalty kicks."

Pearson's team is back to its winning ways this season, of course.

In wrestling, coach Ed Goodpaster saw two Gators claim state 2A titles: Jimmy Gaulden at 189 pounds and Adam Nuru in the heavyweight division. They were Land O'Lakes' first state wrestling champions since 1982, highlighting a banner day for the county overall, which won five state championships and the runner-up silver that night.

Baseball season saw another Land O'Lakes team rise to the top, as the Gators went 25-5 and Derek Thompson was named the SAC Pitcher of the Year after setting new school records with nine wins and 111 strikeouts.

But the true reward didn't come until the summer, during the amateur draft when three Land O'Lakes pitchers were drafted among the nation's elite.

Thompson went first, to the Cleveland Indians as a supplemental pick in the first round and the 37th pick overall. Kurt Shafer went second, in the eighth round to the Pittsburgh Pirates as the 239th pick overall. Corey Doyne was chosen in the ninth round by the Houston Astros.

All three signed minor-league contracts.

"That's pretty impressive," coach Cal Baisley said after the draft.

Then again, he may as well have been talking about the entire school.

_ JAMAL THALJI

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