PALM HARBOR — From the outside, it may have appeared that East Lake would be the underdog coming into Friday’s Class 8A, District 11 opener against rival Palm Harbor University. After all, the Eagles sported a record of 1-4 and were on the road against a Hurricanes squad on a three-game win streak.
But looks can be deceiving.
A closer look would show that East Lake had lost by a total of 28 points to teams with a combined record of 19-3. Coach Bob Hudson’s strategy of scheduling the most difficult teams paid off in a 23-7 victory Friday night.
East Lake (2-4, 1-0) struck first. A Colin MacLean interception on the second play of the game led to a seven-play drive, capped by 14-yard touchdown up the middle from sophomore Ti’lan McGee (11 carries, 67 yards).
Palm Harbor U. (3-2, 0-1) answered after sophomore Gunner Fodor ripped the ball out the hands of the Eagle punt returner and set the Hurricanes up at the 25-yard line. A few plays later, junior workhorse Luke Yoder (34 carries, 173 yards) went around left end to tie the score at 7.
In the second quarter, East Lake junior quarterback Jake Bechtel (18-of-26, 237 yards) connected with tight end Wyatt Stiehl (six receptions, 70 yards) from 20 yards out for a 13-7 lead.
“Jake does a good job and works extremely hard. He’s getting more consistent,” Hudson said. “We put a lot on our quarterbacks on the field. We allow them to make adjustments and changes, and we give them options. He had some good balls tonight and made some good decisions.”
Later in the quarter, it was Bechtel connecting with junior Ryui Rivers (seven receptions, 73 yards) and Stiehl on a 14-play, 90-yard drive before plunging in from the 1-yard line to put the Eagles up 20-7. A 42-yard field goal from the left foot of Nathanial Eichner as time expired in the half extended the lead to 16.
The second half was a defensive battle. East Lake came up with several big plays when it counted to overcome Yoder’s big night on the ground.
“Our defense goes up against our offense in practice. It’s high tempo and the guys are in good shape. We were flying around tonight,” Hudson said.