Sunlake gets defensive
LAND O' LAKES - They are as unselfish as they are successful, as trusting in each other as they are in themselves, and in the most dire of situations, can be as tough and as physical as the greatest defenses Pasco County has seen. Sunlake's defense has quietly and deftly gone about its business this season, letting the offense get a huge share of the glory on the stat sheets, without so much as a single complaint about the lack of attention they've received. But when the Seahawks defeated perennial-playoff contender Ocala Vanguard 22-21 last week in the school's first-ever playoff game, the unit may have finally gotten the respect it deserved. Now Sunlake (10-1) turns its attention to the 10th-ranked team in Class 6A, Gainesville (9-2) tonight at Citizens Field in the Region 2 semifinals. It's another road test against a squad that boasts Division I college talent on both sides of the ball.It is doubtful that the Seahawks will be intimidated. "The personalities on this team, they don't get rattled when their backs are against the wall," said Coach Bill Browning. "It's the old saying — defense wins championships. You have to play sound defense, you cannot have any breakdowns in special teams where field position changes on you suddenly, and on offense, you can't beat yourself." Those fundamentals, coupled with clutch performances, are the reasons why Sunlake has made it this far. Against Vanguard, Sunlake made a heroic fourth-quarter goal-line stand, stopping the Knights on back-to-back plays from the 1-yard line to force a turnover on downs. It paved the way for a game-winning 98-yard touchdown drive and two-point conversion. Then the defense had to stop Vanguard on two more series to secure the win. "We made a statement to the Tampa Bay area," said senior defensive end Paul Scott. "Most of the other schools think we're just playing an easy schedule, and we wanted to let the Tampa Bay area know that Sunlake has a lot of athletes and physical players here, too." In the past two seasons, Sunlake has held 15 of its 21 opponents to 10 points or less, with seven shutouts. This year, they allowed 20 or more points only twice, including last week to Vanguard. Along with Scott, who is among the Seahawks leaders in sacks, linebacker Nick Morrison (137 tackles) and cornerback Rashaud Daniels (58 tackles, 3 interceptions) are the unit's oldest and most experienced players. Junior Ray Busbee (93 tackles) also has been a solid contributor. Inside the Sunlake defensive huddle, there is confidence, calmness and a prevailing sense of trust, no matter what the circumstances. The keys are simple — know your assignment, be disciplined and be physical. The trick is to have players who understand the importance all three. "It's doing the ordinary things well, being lined up right, and hustling," Browning said. When the stakes get higher, when the margin of error is the slimmest and the situation is at its most pressurized, that's how Sunlake's defense likes it. Once again, the Seahawks are out to prove they belong. "It's a bend-but-not-break kind of thing," Scott said. "We may bend, but we're not going to break."
Correspondent Bart O'Connell can be reached at email@example.com. He can be followed on Twitter, with live in-game updates from the Sunlake-Gainesville game @BartOTrib.