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Gators begin making big waves

By GREG AUMAN, STEVE LEE and JAMAL THALJI
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002


RUSHING LEADER

Greg Auman: Tyrone Tomlin, Wesley Chapel. The Wildcats don't have to rush him back from knee surgery, and the second half of the season offers Mitchell, Hernando and Hudson. While he won't match his county-record total from last season, he'll win this year's rushing title by 300 yards.

Steve Lee: Tomlin's the man if his knee holds up. He appears sculpted after spending the summer in the weight room and is eager to get back on the field.

Jamal Thalji: I'll go with Pasco fullback Devon Hicks. Hicks is as gifted an athlete as there is in the county. He just has to prove it.

PASSING LEADER

Auman: Drew Weatherford, Land O'Lakes. This shouldn't be any closer than the rushing title. It's a safe bet he'll trump last year's county-best numbers -- 1,475 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Lee: Weatherford. Coach John Benedetto is ready to unleash the third-year starter. A 2,000-yard season is not out of the question.

Thalji: Weatherford. It will be his second year running the spread formation, and his teammates are growing into the offense as well.

GAME OF THE YEAR

Auman: Pasco at Zephyrhills, Nov. 1. My first instinct was to go with Wesley Chapel at Land O'Lakes, a likely conference championship game, in the season finale. But that game, at best, will have a county crown on the line, while the 9-Mile Rivalry will likely have a playoff berth at stake.

Lee: Wesley Chapel at Land O'Lakes, Nov. 8. Clearly the most talented teams in the county, this playoff tuneup is not to be missed.

Thalji: Let's look to the west side, shall we? How about Land O'Lakes-River Ridge on Oct. 25? It's a week after the big Land O'Lakes-Central clash for the district title, which means the Royal Knights sneak up on the Gators and end a five-year skid.

LEADING TACKLER

Auman: Maurice Standifer, Wesley Chapel. Look for the Pasco transfer to get in on plenty of hits this fall, edging out teammate Chris Roberts.

Lee: Roberts. Having Standifer as a teammate will push Roberts, an outside linebacker coming off a breakout year. Either way, this pair could finish 1-2. Thalji: Pasco nose guard Bruce Simon. He's strong, fast and the team almost moved him to linebacker because he's had such a great offseason.

BIGGEST UPSET

Auman: Pasco over Land O'Lakes, Sept. 27. The Pirates may finish third in their district, but seven wins will get them in the playoffs, and they need this game to get to seven wins.

Lee: Ridgewood over Hudson, Sept. 7. Coming off a one-win season, Ridgewood beating anyone might be considered an upset.

Thalji: Hudson over Pasco on Oct. 17. For the Pirates, the game is sandwiched between huge games against South Sumter and Wesley Chapel, leaving them vulnerable to the improved Cobras.

SURPRISE TEAM

Auman: Pasco. Shouldn't be that surprising, but this is a playoff team stuck in the same district with two more playoff teams in Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel. They can't catch the Wildcats, but they have the speed and experience to hang with everyone else.

Lee: Ridgewood. Rams go from one win to five under new coach Troy Cornwell.

Thalji: Gulf or Ridgewood? Both have new offenses that will give opposing defenses fits. Ridgewood could be 3-0 before the Sept. 28 Wesley Chapel game, but the Rams' late-season schedule could send them crashing back to earth. I'll go with Gulf, which needs four wins for its best season since 1994.

SAC CHAMPION

Auman: Wesley Chapel, even if Tomlin is a question mark. And look out for sophomore Nigel Bryant, a future tailback starting as a receiver like Tomlin did. He's a superstar in the making.

Lee: Land O'Lakes beats Wesley Chapel in season finale with Drew Weatherford's arm edging out Tyron Tomlin's legs.

Thalji: It will go down to the last game of the year again, and it will be Wesley Chapel.

DISTRICT CHAMPIONS

Auman: Wesley Chapel and Land O'Lakes. When was the last time the county had two playoff victories in the same season? These two potent offenses, starting the postseason at home, could make everyone forget the usual Pasco-in-the-playoffs stigma.

Lee: Central has tough road games against Land O'Lakes and Springstead, so the Gators will win the 4A-6 crown. Wesley Chapel will handily defend its 3A-7 title.

Thalji: The safe pick in 3A-7 is to pick Wesley Chapel to repeat. I'll go out on just a little bit of a limb and say Land O'Lakes will take the 4A-6 title from Central.

PLAYOFF WIN

Lee: In a perfect world, Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel win first-round games

Thalji: Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel both win playoff games this year.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Auman: Weatherford. And he'll get it next year, too.

Lee: Weatherford's arm, not to mention his scrambling ability, enables the junior quarterback to easily surpass 2,000 total yards. That should do it.

Thalji: Weatherford. Sorry, Tyrone.

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