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Top ten moments

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 1, 2002

LAND O'LAKES -- It was a record-shattering season, one in which Land O'Lakes set a standard for its success.

The program with one playoff victory in its 27 years had two wins in eight days. Pasco County was treated to three home postseason games, nearly carrying football into December.

It wasn't easy paring down the Gators' good fortunes to 10 plays, but here's one list, a glimpse at what they were able to accomplish in 13 memorable games.

10. One last touchdown

The Gators had allowed 49 points in a row in their loss to the state-ranked Pirates. But Drew Weatherford and Logan Payne hooked up one more time, connecting on a 37-yard touchdown pass with 2:28 remaining. It was a fitting finale for the offense, as those two combined a state-best 21 times for TDs to become the most prolific duo in county history. Payne finished with four catches for 82 yards in his last game as a Gator.

9. A convincing win

The Bulldogs lost once in the regular season, but it was a humbling 36-0 defeat on their home field. Weatherford was 14-of-17 for 240 yards and 3 touchdowns, including a 15-yard score to Keith Elser on the opening drive. Zephyrhills didn't lose for another 10 weeks, falling to Jesuit in the second round of the playoffs. The Gators' only shutout of the year came against perhaps their toughest regular-season foe.

8. School scoring record

The Gators had scored 55 points against Gulf in the season opener, the most in a single game, but Land O'Lakes had 46 at halftime vs. winless Springstead. Chris Perez, lost for the season a week later against Pasco, scored four touchdowns in the 60-10 win. Yet the star of the night was the defense, which forced five turnovers as Land O'Lakes built a 26-0 lead in the first quarter despite 40 yards of offense.

7. A brief lead

The lead lasted only three minutes then changed, but the Gators started strong on their home field in the school's first region final. Palm Bay fumbled on its first offensive play, and Land O'Lakes responded two plays later with a 17-yard touchdown from Weatherford to Adam Denicourt, who had caused the fumble. The Pirates scored the next seven TDs, but the Gators gave a crowd of 3,000-plus something to cheer about early on.

6. Leaving no doubt

The Rams came in 3-1, unlikely challengers to the Gators' district supremacy, but it didn't take long for Land O'Lakes to put Ridgewood in its place. Weatherford threw for four TDs and ran for another in the first half, spending most of the second on the sideline with the rest of the starters as the Gators were able to empty their bench in a lopsided 42-14 win.

5. A thrilling victory

Pasco rallied for the tying score on a fourth-and-18 play but gave Land O'Lakes the ball on its 27 with 4:36 remaining. Weatherford threw for two first downs and ran for two more, putting the Gators on the 10-yard line with nine seconds left. Time enough to find Payne for the winning score. Payne finished with 176 yards and two scores.

4. A goal-line stand

Fourth quarter, game tied at 14-14 14, and defensive coordinator Al Claggett calls for his "Guts" defense. Merritt Island has fourth-and-goal from the 1, and the Gators stuff 1,000-yard rusher Danny Verpaele, whose 53-yard run set up the first-and-goal. Linebacker Tommy Hoskins forced Verpaele inside then Denicourt finished him off, as both dropped Verpaele for a 2-yard loss.

3. Defensive stop

Leading 14-6 but scoreless for nearly three quarters, Land O'Lakes saw Vanguard drive to its 13 in the fourth quarter. The Gators forced a fumble and recovered on fourth-and-5 with 2:51 remaining. Weatherford, who threw for only 51 yards, gained enough on the ground to allow Land O'Lakes to run out the clock.

2. Comeback kids

Much as he did against Pasco, Weatherford found himself with a chance to win late. This time, he trailed 23-20 against Wesley Chapel, needing a touchdown to clinch an unbeaten regular season and conference championship. He passed for 324 yards and three scores and ran for a fourth, but the last strike would be one of Payne's easiest catches. Weatherford found him open in the left back corner of the end zone, leaping for the winning touchdown -- their 19th scoring connection of the season.

1. Garcia's grab

Weatherford found Garcia his only catch of the night against Merritt Island with 2:46 left to give the Gators a 20-14 lead. This play wouldn't have been possible without a 32-yard catch made by Payne on third-and-12 from the Gators 1-yard line. Garcia wasn't Weatherford's intended target on the winning pass, but he stepped in front of the ball for the go-ahead touchdown. To seal the victory, Gio Benedetto tackled a Merritt Island player 1 yard short of a first down -- a yard from converting a fourth-and-32 on a fumblerooski. Weatherford finished with 201 yards, passing for two TDs and running for another.

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