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Playoff losses big motivation for Gators

Benedetto thinks he has the QB and other talents to go farther.

By STEVE LEE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002


LAND O'LAKES -- A failed two-point conversion with no time left in last year's 7-6 playoff loss to Ocala Forest stunned the Gators.

Coach John Benedetto wants that Class 4A quarterfinal defeat to be a lasting memory for a team with five consecutive postseason appearances but no wins.

"It was very emotional," said Benedetto, the county's senior coach entering his 26th season. "Hopefully, we learned something from it. You can take a bad situation and turn it into a good one, I think, by getting your concentration up a little higher."

Improving on a 1-10 playoff mark is paramount and Benedetto feels there is ample talent to do just that.

First and foremost is quarterback Drew Weatherford, a junior who led the county in completions (111), passing yards (1,475, a school record) and touchdown passes (12) last season. After starting every game since his freshman season, look for Weatherford to increase those numbers.

"I don't know how the season is going to go, but we've got one damn good quarterback," said Benedetto.

The Gators' most productive receiver, Chip Whalen (492 yards, four TDs), graduated, leaving Logan Payne (306 receiving yards, five TDs) as Weatherford's top target. Deep threat Michael Garcia and tight end Dustin Collins are sure to see more balls.

Running backs Chris Perez, Giovanni Benedetto (the coach's son), Tom Hoskins, Adam Denicourt and Keith Elser also will be catching some passes.

All of which should make Land O'Lakes, traditionally a run-oriented team, the most balanced in school history. So why isn't the coach as ecstatic about his offense as he is his quarterback?

"Here's the problem," Benedetto said. "You've got a Division I quarterback, but other than Logan, who is an above-average receiver, Drew's throwing to average receivers.

"Is that going to work?"

Probably, especially if Perez turns out to be the latest in a long line of outstanding running backs. The junior should give Land O'Lakes its first 1,000-yard rusher since Godfrey Pestana (a 2000 graduate who rushed for a school-record 4,057 yards).

Like Pestana, Perez rushed for 1,000 yards at Pine View Middle School and for the junior varsity. Last season, Perez ran for 363 yards, had another 103 receiving and scored five touchdowns.

"It's so hard to get a good hit on him and he's got deceptive speed," Benedetto said.

Defensively, all-county cornerback Payne (five interceptions) returns along with lineman Joey Tuttle and linebacker Denicourt.

LAND O'LAKES GATORS

Directions

GATORS STADIUM: 20325 Gator Lane, Land O'Lakes. From the west, take S.R. 52 to U.S. 41 and turn south. School is 5 miles on the left. From the east, take S.R. 52 to U.S. 41 and turn south.

GATORS PLAYBOOK

OFFENSE: Land O'Lakes' run-oriented offense can be boring -- and especially proficient as evidenced in the past five consecutive playoff seasons -- with a slew of dives and traps. Not anymore, thanks to strong-armed quarterback Drew Weatherford, a junior entering his third year as the starter. Plays such as 90 Special Post will be used more often than in the past. On that call, Logan Payne flying down the left sideline is the primary target, with split end Giovanni Benedetto and tight end Dustin Collins as the outlets. This happens behind one of the county's most experienced lines anchored by Joey Tuttle and Bobby O'Dell.

DEFENSE: In the Gators' traditional 4-4 scheme, Tuttle and O'Dell anchor a defensive line primarily responsible for keeping offensive linemen off the linebackers. They help funnel plays for inside linebackers Adam Denicourt and Kevan Bogaert. Outside linebackers Tom Hoskins and Collins force plays back to the inside. Defensive backs Giovanni Benedetto, Chris Perez, Michael Garcia and Payne are interchangeable as safeties and at the corners. This unit is disciplined enough to play the pass first and come up quickly for run support.

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