TAMPA — Big and little brother are squaring off.
It's a rivalry with familiar faces and friends, but most importantly, it's a game with both team's postseason hopes on the line.
As Sunlake hosts crosstown rival Land O' Lakes tonight at 7:30 in what couldn't be a more pivotal Class 6A-District 6 matchup, the Seahawks (6-1, 1-1) and the Gators (6-0, 1-0) both realize not only bragging rights are at stake, but also, assuredly, a playoff berth.
“It's us, Little Brother, vs. them, Big Brother,” said Sunlake junior running back Nathan Johnson, who leads the county in rushing yards (953) and touchdowns (10). “There's been some trash talking, but you've got to do it on the field. That's where you take care of it.”
For the Seahawks, its a do-or-die game because they've already lost to 6A-District 6 foe Spring Hill Springstead (6-1, 2-0), and if Sunlake were to lose, it will likely miss the playoffs. And if the Gators were to lose, they would need to beat the Eagles on Nov. 1 to force a three-way tiebreaker shootout. However, if Land O' Lakes wins, then that game with Springstead could be a 6A-6 title game.
“It is the Battle of Land O' Lakes,” said Gators junior lefty quarterback James Pensyl, who leads the county with 1,396 passing yards and 10 touchdowns. “I think we've been preparing for it all season, no matter what it would mean to the postseason. Our goal to get to the playoffs, we're determined to get that goal and its getting our players excited knowing what's on the line.”
In this unofficial “Land O' Lakes Butter Bowl” the Gators and Seahawks are 3-3 heading to the teams' seventh meeting and the two teams couldn't be more evenly matched. Not only is it the top two teams in the county, but its the best offense vs. the best defense.
Pensyl is running a high-tempo offense that has outscored opponents 181-54, while averaging 30 points and 242 passing yards per game, while players such as Seahawks linebacker Ben Wood (61 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and lineman Zion Osborn (6.5 sacks) are leading a defense that has four shutouts and has allowed just 23 points.
Sunlake's offense is lead by a running game producing 194 yards per game thanks to Johnson's breakout season. Meanwhile, the Gators defense is no pushover with players such as Shaheed Salmon (62 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Darius Wells (6 sacks, two fumble recoveries).
“I think if they play coverage, it will come down to our receivers and running backs being able to find the creases and make the plays,” said Pensyl, who is surrounded by impressive weapons such as tight end Liam Heaney (422 receiving yards, 3 TDs) and running back Larnez Scroggins (524 rushing yards, 4 TDs). “We know it may come down to whose defense plays better, and they've got a good one, but I think we do, too.”
As Little Brother needs a win for postseason survival and Big Brother wants to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, there's plenty of motivation for both teams.
“It would mean a lot to beat our rivals, which it's always great to beat your rivals, but also means we still can get into the playoffs,” Johnson said. “A win for us means that our season isn't essentially over after Friday night.”
PREDICTION: Correspondents Mike Camunas, Andy Villamarzo and Kyle LoJacano pick Land O' Lakes, while correspondents Bart O'Connell, Chris Errington, Steve Campbell and Kenny Sanders pick Land O' Lakes to win.
Correspondent Mike Camunas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MikeCamunas.