By JAMAL THALJI
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000
Another week. Another big game. Yet again.
Land O'Lakes is used to these contests. Despite a 4-2 record, the Class 4A, District 6 crown is seemingly out of reach. But at 1-1 in the district, the Gators could still claim the runner-up spot and a playoff berth with a win tonight.
Ridgewood, however, is not used to this at all.
Ridgewood? Now, don't act surprised anymore.
The Rams are a stunning 3-3 this season, and as coach Wayne Parzik will tell anyone within earshot, his team should be 4-2, or even 5-1. Ridgewood is also 1-1 in the race to be the 4A-6 runner-up.
Thus the Rams face their most meaningful October game in recent memory, and hungrily eye not just the first winning season in 15 years, but also the first post-season appearance in the school's 16-year history.
"This is probably the biggest game we've had in probably the last four years," Parzik said.
Gators coach John Benedetto, on the other hand, could really do without another big game.
"This will be our third big game in a row," Benedetto said. "The Countryside (loss), the big game against Pasco that we managed to come back and win, and now we're facing our third big game in a row.
"We expect our kids to play well, based on that they know the importance of this ballgame. And we're playing hard, finally, for the first time in a couple of weeks."
A loss to the Cougars bumped the Gators from the 4A-6 driver's seat, but beating the Pirates last week kept their Sunshine Athletic Conference title hunt alive.
Tonight, the SAC crown and a playoff spot are on the line for Land O'Lakes. After dreams of another 10-0 regular season were dashed, a third loss would complicate the Gators' season even more.
"I think the team who wins this game will probably go on and be the runner-up and go to the playoffs," Benedetto said.
The coach added his team won't take Ridgewood lightly. They can't. History bears that out, since the Rams are a respectable 6-9 lifetime against the Gators. "They always give us trouble," he said.
Land O'Lakes enters as the favorite, has won the last four meetings and lost just twice in the '90s. Both squads share similar strengths and weaknesses.
Both can run the ball; Land O'Lakes tailback Godfrey Pestana is the county's leading rusher, and Ridgewood tailback Michael Cassagnol rushed for 265 yards in last week's win over Wesley Chapel.
Both are searching for a passing attack. Freshman quarterback Drew Weatherford is improving for the Gators, but without a credible passing game, teams are loading up to stop Pestana.
Ridgewood quarterback Mario Policastri made his first start last week after three days of practice for the injured Larry Higgins. Parzik limited his offense in last week's win, but after a full week of practice, he said Policastri will execute nearly the entire offense. Policastri is a far more gifted runner than passer, however.
What makes Ridgewood so formidable, Benedetto said, is that the Rams are playing with a high degree of confidence.
"They're playing good football right now, they feel good about themselves, and we've got to be very, very careful," he said. "They just have better players (than in the past) I think."
Parzik agreed. He said it's a good feeling -- for once.
"We feel good, the whole team feels good, and I'm sure the community feels good," he said. "They know we're playing better football than we have in many years."