tampabay.com

Gators' finish no surprise

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published October 29, 2006


LAND O'LAKES - At the end of Friday's game, Land O'Lakes was exactly where everyone thought they would be at the beginning of the season.

On top of the district, and readying for a playoff game (against Chamberlain on Nov. 10 at Land O'Lakes).

With an 18-0 victory over Wharton, the Gators gave coach John Benedetto, in his 30th season, his 10th straight district title and 11th postseason berth.

No surprise there.

What was, however, was the journey there.

Last year, the Gators didn't have a game closer than 10 points in their first seven wins. But they dropped two of their last four and fizzled.

This year, the Gators are more battle-tested after:

An opening loss. A squeaker over Ridgewood in Week 2. Two overtime victories. And the improbable comeback from a 24-0 deficit to beat Gaither in a must-win contest Oct. 20.

All of which has Benedetto thinking this team, which has won eight straight, might be more special than he even thought.

"Look at what they learned last week being down 24-0," he said. "They know it doesn't matter if they are down that things can work out for them. Having these experiences, these two overtime games, coming back from a 24-0 defcit, I think has helped tremendously, and I really think we're still getting better. And if you're still getting better going into the playoffs, then you can have good playoff success."

The Gators won Friday because the defense was stout and the running game was efficient. Though they are known for their passing exploits, they only gained 65 yards against Wharton with two interceptions.

But the defense held leading Wildcat rusher Joel Miller to 63 yards. Mike Torro and Jerome Blyden had key interceptions, Torro's ending a late first-half drive by Wharton and Blyden's setting up the clinching touchdown. Blyden blocked a punt through the end zone to make it 8-0 at halftime. And Keith Hoffman recovered three fumbles, one leading to the Gators' first score and the last snuffing a Wharton drive on the Land O'Lakes 2-yard line.

"We knew we could step up and do it," Blyden said. "We've always had it in us."

Torro also gained 25 hard yards on the ground, contributing to 135 for the Gators, a big key in a game altered by wind and rain.