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Land O'Lakes never lost heart, fighting right up until the very end

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002

LAND O'LAKES -- Down 49-7 in Friday night's Class 4A region final, a once-perfect season in shambles and on its way to the end, let the record show that Land O'Lakes did not go quietly.

"One time in the huddle we were getting so frustrated," split end Logan Payne said. "We decided that we have to go out with class, fellas, we have to lose like men. We told ourselves, 'Everybody loses. This is our time.' "

Minutes later, the state's top touchdown tandem connected for one last time as quarterback Drew Weatherford threw his state-leading 39th touchdown pass for 37 yards to Payne, who caught his state-best 21st touchdown.

The final score was Melbourne Palm Bay 49, Land O'Lakes 14. But for this school, this team, the memories will never end.

"I'm only disappointed in the way we played tonight because we really needed to play well," said coach John Benedetto, whose 12-1 Gators enjoyed the best season in school history and the best showing in his 26-year career.

"But I'm happy because of all that's gone on in the last few years in Pasco County football. I feel our team has changed that (perception), and I feel our team is a state-level team."

For that is the hallmark of the 2002 Gators: they believed they could compete at the state level and confidently proved it, helping improve the tarnished image of Pasco County football.

Land O'Lakes went 2-1 in the playoffs, winning its first postseason game in nine years and the first postseason game by a county team in four years, snapping an 0-7 streak.

The Gators also won the first second-round game in school history. Twice Land O'Lakes bested postseason foes who once would have feasted on Pasco County. Ocala Vanguard fell 14-6 and Merritt Island 20-14, setting up Friday's historic game and justifying a No. 9 ranking in the Class 4A poll.

No county team since the 1992 Pasco Pirates has been as successful as these Gators. Nor has any team played as hard. Just ask the opposition.

"The heart they showed, these guys never quit," Pirates coach Dan Burke said. "Every single extra point was contested by them ... Those guys should be proud of their season."

Indeed. Even as the Gators turned the ball over six times, and committed penalty after miscue after mistake, the players still showed heart.

Whether it was lineman Bobby O'Dell collecting two sacks and an interception in his last game, or quarterback Drew Weatherford knocking 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive lineman Russell Francis down on an attempted sack in the first half, or Adam Denicourt powering his way up the middle for a 10-yard gain late in the fourth.

But the Gators needed to play a perfect game to win. The fact that they didn't means Land O'Lakes coaches and players will always wonder what if. What if the Gators had played as they had throughout the season?

"To win this ballgame we had to play a perfect game tonight," Payne said. "We needed a flawless victory to win this game.

"I think if we hadn't made those mistakes, we definitely would have been in there in the end. Once they got on us, they got a lot of momentum on us, and we just couldn't take it back."

Too much wasn't going Land O'Lakes' way Friday night. After stripping and recovering the ball on Palm Bay's second play, Weatherford hit Denicourt for a 17-yard touchdown to take a 7-0 lead with 10:57 left in the first quarter.

But from there Weatherford found himself the target of a relentless Pirates' defense, one that salivated at the thought of challenging the state's best quarterback; a defense that sacked Weatherford six times, intercepted him four times and limited him to 10-of-22 passing for 130 yards. That was just one of many reasons why Palm Bay took a 21-7 halftime lead and scored 42 unanswered points.

"Drew was trying to make things happen," Benedetto said. "I thought there were a couple of times when he was under so much pressure, he couldn't set his feet and make the kinds of passes he's capable of making."

But then Palm Bay geared its entire defense around stopping the quarterback Friday night.

Afterward, an emotional Weatherford grappled with the end of a memorable season.

"It's a time I'll never forget," he said.

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