Magical season ends for Sunlake
GAINESVILLE - They all gathered around each other for the final time at the middle of Citizens Field. Some were more emotional than others. Some couldn't do anything but lie on the ground, and some couldn't do anything but stand and stare. No one on the 2011 Sunlake Seahawks wanted to accept that they were about to hear their coach make a postgame speech on the field for the final time this season, especially the seniors who, up until Friday's 21-14 loss to Gainesville, were achieving more on those fields than anybody outside of it had expected. Coach Bill Browning could have lamented the mistakes – the four turnovers, which proved the most costly of the Seahawks' season – but he chose not to. This team had accomplished too much to go home having felt they had let their fans down. "You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of," Browning said, the first words out of his mouth. "You guys had one heck of a season."Indeed, the Seahawks, who entered the 2011 campaign having lost a 1,000-yard rusher and passer in quarterback Jacob Jackson, proved a lot of people wrong in somehow improving on last year's 8-2 campaign, winning 10 games. They became the first team in school history to make the postseason when they engineered a goal-line stand to stop River Ridge. Then they became the first team in Pasco County history to debut in the playoffs with a win, knocking off Class 6A-District 5 Champion Ocala Vanguard. And they were the first team in school history to beat crosstown rival Land O' Lakes, effectively ending the Gators' 14-year streak of reaching the playoffs by planting the seeds of their own postseason streak. Senior quarterback Cameron Stoltz, despite never having started a game before this season, finished unofficially with 1,721 yards and 28 TDs passing, both school records. Senior receiver Jamal Jones had 560 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns, 10 on receptions. Senior do-it-all standout Rashaud Daniels also had 10 touchdowns, finished with 977 yards from scrimmage (42 passing, 489 rushing, 449 receiving), and had three interceptions on defense. There are plenty of other seniors to point out, 21 in all, including the team's leading tackler, Nick Morrison, leading rusher, Jerome Samuels, lineman Paul Scott, who had a sack and an interception return for a touchdown against Gainesville, and center Nate McCoole, who opened holes all season for Sunlake's running game and proved instrumental in its goal-line defense. Of course, there will always be the "what if". Gainesville will travel to Armwood to face the consensus top team in Class 6A and according to the national rankings, one of the 10 best teams in the United States. When Sunlake's fans heard Armwood was shutting out Hillsborough on Friday, they cheered loudly with excitement at the possibility of facing them. For those that followed the Seahawks, there was a time when anything seemed possible. And it almost happened. Nevertheless, in one storybook season, Sunlake managed to change its football image and gave football in Pasco County some much-needed respect from their rivals to the North. "The seniors next year," Browning said, "have a lot to live up to."
Correspondent Bart O'Connell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be followed on Twitter @BartOTrib.