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Sunlake took students destined for Land O'Lakes. Not much has changed yet, but will it?
By IZZY GOULD, Times Staff Writer
Published September 28, 2007
LAND O'LAKES - The sky was falling on the Land O'Lakes athletic department several months ago.
The football program that had earned 10 straight postseason berths was earmarked for demolition. Other coaches feared their programs would be gutted and their talented athletes would fall behind new school boundaries, forcing them into the swank new digs at Sunlake.
"It really hasn't hurt us much," Land O'Lakes coach John Benedetto said. "We needed a new school. We may have overreacted to the whole situation to begin with because we didn't know at the time where the boundaries were going to be set. I don't know about the other sports, but in football it didn't hurt us mainly because all the seniors got to stay."
Tonight begins Pasco County's newest rivalry when Land O'Lakes travels to Sunlake for what many are surely expecting to be a blowout. The Gators are full of experience, including 31 seniors.
Sunlake opened in August without a senior class. The Gators are 3-1. The Seahawks have been outscored 141-7 in their three losses.
The tale of new school openings in Pasco County:
- Hudson opened and pulled kids from Gulf.
- Ridgewood opened and pulled kids from Gulf.
- River Ridge opened and pulled kids from Ridgewood and Gulf.
- Mitchell opened and pulled kids from River Ridge and Gulf.
- Wesley Chapel opened and pulled kids from Pasco.
- Wiregrass Ranch opened and pulled kids from Wesley Chapel.
River Ridge's opening hurt Gulf quite a bit, and Mitchell in turn hurt River Ridge. One recent opening that had a significant impact on a football program was Wesley Chapel. The Wildcats pulled kids from Dade City who would have attended Pasco. After a few building years, the Wildcats terrorized Pasco County, going 28-5 in 2001-03.
After going 11-1 in 1998, Pasco struggled with back-to-back losing seasons and a three-year playoff drought. And in head-to-head competition, Wesley Chapel on occasion embarrassed the Pirates, including a 71-6 win in '01 and a 64-29 win in '02.
No one expects an immediate flip-flop with Land O'Lakes-Sunlake, but Gators athletic director Chuck Moehle wonders about the future.
One fear is rooted at the middle school level. Pineview Middle, which feeds into Land O'Lakes, had a significant dip in enrollment. The majority of those kids now attend Rushe Middle, which feeds into Sunlake.
"I'm sure there's going to be some kind of a fallout," Moehle said. "It may be two or three years down the road. There are those here who believe if the housing market turns around that there's so much development here north of (Highway) 41 that we're going to be fine and our population will be up in a couple of years."
Land O'Lakes went from an enrollment of 2,459 a year ago to 1,699 at the end of the first school week this year. Sunlake has 1,095 kids, most who would have attended Land O'Lakes. But in terms of losing football players, Land O'Lakes felt little to no impact.
Lizette Alexander, director of student services for Pasco County schools, said 46 percent of students transferring from Sunlake to Land O'Lakes were juniors. No one who cited athletics as a reason to stay at Land O'Lakes was approved for school choice, she said.
There seemed to be little concern over the issue Thursday afternoon at Sunlake, where the Seahawks prepared for another game against another tough opponent.
Sunlake coach Bill Browning said he believes the talent gap between Sunlake and Land O'Lakes will even over time.
"That's something you just have to roll with," Browning said. "As we get more of a relationship with the middle school, it should improve."