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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Sunlake wins the only way it knows how

OCALA - Before there was a game-winning touchdown drive, there was a goal-line stand. And before there was a goal-line stand, there was a brief moment where everybody on the Sunlake sideline and in the seats thought the Seahawks' playoff dreams were about to end. But somehow, in the typical, unlikely Sunlake way, the ending wasn't what anyone expected. Down 21-14 with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Ocala Vanguard runningback Kyle Sander, who gashed Sunlake's defense over-and-over in the second half, burst through the middle and looked like he would crash into the end zone for a touchdown to give the Knights a 13-point lead.
Instead, Sander was hit and dropped by multiple defenders inside the 1-yard line on second and goal. And in this most daunting of situations, the Seahawks not only went on to prevent Vanguard from scoring, but also engineered a game-winning 98-yard drive and two-point conversion to eke out what is arguably the most improbable win in Pasco County football playoff history, 22-21 Friday night at Booster Stadium in Ocala. Maybe the magic started with massive lineman Nate McCoole, who snuck up behind the coaches during Vanguard's drive, as if to say, 'put me in'. McCoole finally got his chance after Sander's run inside the 1. He plugged up the middle as expected, and Sander lost a yard on his next two carries, forcing Vanguard to turn the ball over on downs, only ahead by 7. "Maybe it's not a good thing [to be in that position], but we're known for goal-line stands," said senior Jerome Samuels, referring to how the Seahawks had a similar stand against River Ridge to clinch its first playoff berth. "We were really ready for it." Or maybe it began after that heroic stand, when quarterback Cameron Stoltz completed a basic pass to Eddie Burgos that turned into a 12-yard gain, and save Sunlake a little breathing room for what turned out to be the greatest of all clutch drives the school has ever seen. "It was hard, but when we got that first play, I said all right, we're doing it," said Stoltz. Three plays later, Stoltz found a wide-open Jamal Jones for 29 yards. Then he spotted a mismatch in coverage on Rashaud Daniels and lofted a beautiful sideline pass to him for a 44-yard gain, down to the Vanguard 1. "I was making sure my guy was open. I wasn't going to force anything," added Stoltz, who threw for 168 yards, two touchdowns (to Jones and Burgos) and no interceptions. And there would be little suspense after that, as Stoltz sneaked it in himself to pull within a point. Then came the extra point, a decision aided by Coach Bill Browning's son, assistant coach Brandon Browning, who asked the obvious. "Did we come here for the win, or the tie?" he said to his father in the headset. The Seahawks gave it to Jerome Samuels, and behind a huge push from the offensive line, easily leaped into the end zone for the lead. "It's one of those decisions where you're either the hero, or you're the biggest jerk in the world," said Bill Browning of the two-point call. It's hard to describe just how improbable the drive was. After all, this was Ocala Vanguard, the team that has played six playoff teams in the regular-season, beating three of them, including defending state champion Ocala Trinity Catholic. This was a team with Division I college talent, mainly free safety and all-purpose offensive weapon P.J. Williams, who is headed to Florida State and rushed for 146 yards and had two touchdowns Friday. And most importantly, this was a team that had allowed three touchdowns in a game only twice all season, and not since September. "According to what everybody says, they're supposed to be [one of the best defenses in the state]," Bill Browning said. "They're very fast on defense and they have some athletes." Now the focus will shift to Gainesville, where the winner of that game will face either Hillsborough or Armwood in the Class 6A-Region 2 finals. "My mind is on (Friday's) game now," Stoltz said Friday night. "But (Saturday) it'll be on Gainesville."

Correspondent Bart O'Connell can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @BartOTrib.
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