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Gators duo comes through in clutch

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002

LAND O'LAKES -- Quarterback Drew Weatherford and split end Logan Payne give Land O'Lakes the state's top passing tandem entering the playoffs.

Against Wesley Chapel, Weatherford went 19-of-26 for 324 yards and three touchdowns passes and ran for a score. Pasco County's single-season leader passed the 2,000-yard barrier and padded his state-leading touchdown pass total to 33.

Payne caught eight passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns to surpass the 1,000-yard mark. The senior pushed his state-leading catch total to 61 and state-leading TD catch total to 19.

But statistics alone can't explain how the Gators overcame an 11-point halftime deficit to clinch their third Sunshine Athletic Conference championship and finish the second 10-0 regular season in school history.

"Offensively, we've always felt the entire season that we're capable of scoring on any play that we run," Gators coach John Benedetto said, "and we made some great plays tonight."

After throwing a 66-yard touchdown pass to flanker Keith Elser to tie it 6-6 early in the first quarter, Weatherford sparked his stalled offense by carrying the ball. Several times he escaped the pass rush with a deftness, agility and toughness that left the Wildcats reeling. His 33-yard scramble at the end of the second quarter set up his own crowd-pleasing 4-yard end zone leap to cut the lead to 23-12.

But realize this: Weatherford was scrambling on a left knee with damaged cartilage, a knee Benedetto said has left the QB at just "85 percent" strength.

"It does (scare me)," Benedetto said of watching Weatherford run. "I don't like it. But he's fearless."

Then Payne, limited to one catch in the first half, took over in the second. Despite taking hits on nearly every reception, Payne proved he's a Division I-A prospect with precise route-running, soft hands and a big-play knack in the clutch. His only drop of the night came with four defenders draped on him.

Payne caught his first touchdown pass with 8:23 left in the third. He snagged Weatherford's missile with two hands while diving out of bounds to make it 23-20. Weatherford dived head-first and landed on his back for the two-point conversion.

Then Payne caught the 10-yard game-winning touchdown pass with 51 seconds left, his easiest catch of the night.

Afterward Payne crumpled in the back of the end zone with severe cramps. He had to be helped to the sideline, the crowd wildly cheering him.

Did Payne doubt that he and Weatherford would win the game? "There was no doubt."

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