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And then there was one

The Gators roll into the region final on the strength of big plays.

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002

LAND O'LAKES -- Pick a play, any of the hold-your-breath, how-did-they-do-that plays from Land O'Lakes' historic 20-14 victory over Merritt Island on Friday.

Pick any play, and marvel.

Land O'Lakes won the first region semifinal playoff in Pasco County in a decade, the first second-round victory since the 1992 Pasco state title team.

"All I can say is, if it's the fourth quarter, it's time to make some big plays," said split end Logan Payne.

He should know. Payne made the biggest play of all. On third-and-12 at their own 1, the run long since abandoned, Payne caught a 32-yard pass from Drew Weatherford, leaping between two defenders to make the grab.

"I knew I had to go and get the ball," Payne said. "I said, 'Drew, I know they'll double-cover me, but throw it up and I'll go get it,' and I did."

Said teammate Gio Benedetto: "When Logan caught that pass, on third-and-God-knows-what, I knew it was over."

Yes, it was the play of the game. Or was it? What about Michael Garcia catching a touchdown pass meant for another receiver to put the Gators up for good?

It came six plays after Payne's spectacular catch, and Weatherford was again running for his life. He spotted Adam Denicourt open in the back of the end zone -- and Garcia cut right in front of the 9-yard pass as if it was meant for him.

"When Drew starts scrambling around like that, we just tell our receivers to start criss-crossing," coach John Benedetto said. "I guess that's what Michael was doing."

"I just got open," Garcia said. "When Drew rolls out of the pocket I just go to the ball. I find an open space."

But then the entire drive was a big deal, too, wasn't it? Weatherford drove Land O'Lakes 97 yards in nine plays, hitting Payne with a 12-yard completion; finding Keith Elser for an 18-yard strike; completing an 11-yard pass to Dustin Collins; then a 5-yarder to Denicourt.

But what about the defense? It held Merritt Island scoreless in the second half and twice on fourth down brought down highly touted Mustangs option quarterback Danny Verpaele. The biggest defensive play of the night, of course, was when Denicourt, Scott Mays and a host of Land O'Lakes defenders swarmed Verpaele on fourth-and-goal at the 1, dropping him for a 2-yard loss with 7:32 left.

Or was it? What about when Ross Hughes tackled Verpaele on fourth-and-4 at the 47, as Verpaele tossed an illegal pass to lineman Joe Kennedy? The Gators took that penalty, and the following unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. On fourth-and-32 at the 27, the Mustangs ran the fumblerooski and almost converted.

But Gio Benedetto tackled Eddie Haupt a yard shy of the first down with 1:04 left to give Land O'Lakes the ball. That was the biggest play, right?

In the end, it doesn't matter which play was the biggest. What matters is the Gators displayed championship-caliber confidence. Land O'Lakes, ranked No. 9 in the state 4A poll with a school-best 12-0 record, will host No. 6 Melbourne Palm Bay (10-2) in the region final.

"Everyone is confident," Payne said. "Coach, the first thing he said to us before this game was, we would have practice on Monday, and we would run.

"From then on we kept rolling, man. We just kept rolling."

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