Sunset football coach Joseph Petisco knew his team had potential since last season.
But inexperience and a bit of immaturity didn’t allow that potential to come to fruition during a frustrating 2014 campaign.
“We have the same kids from last season, so I remind them constantly remember what happened [in Week 3 of 2014],” Petisco said. “I don’t put up with any nonsense anymore. It’s their experience this year that’s made the difference. Maybe nobody else knew we’d be this good. But we did.”
A focused resolve has Sunset close to making the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
The Knights took a big step Thursday afternoon when — led by junior running back Javier Zuniga’s 124 yards and two touchdowns overall — they beat Miami Springs 14-7 at Tropical Park.
Sunset (6-1, 6-0 District 16-7A) won its sixth consecutive game following an opening week loss to Palmetto, and earned a winning record after winning only six games combined over the past five seasons.
The Knights need a win over Mourning next week, coupled with a Mater Academy win over Miami Springs, to clinch a playoff berth. If that scenario plays out, it would set up a clash between Sunset and Mater on Oct. 30 for the district championship.
The Knights have not won a district title since 2005 under then-coach Robert Fernandez. It was also the school’s first playoff season. Fernandez passed away a year later after battling brain cancer.
His motto, “mountains to climb,” is still a phrase dear to the Sunset football team, which wore the letters “MTC” on the back of their jerseys on Thursday.
“Every day I put that whistle on, I feel like I have an obligation to coach those kids the way coach Fernandez did when I played for him,” said Petisco, a former Sunset defensive standout. “If any of these kids looks up to me the way I looked up to him, then I’ve done my job right.”
Sunset made the playoffs the following four seasons after 2005 under then coach Jayson Malkin. But from 2010-2013, the Knights went 1-9 four consecutive seasons.
Following a 2-0 start last year, Sunset proceeded to lose its final eight games.
“We’ve been working strong in every practice and just following what our coaches say,” Zuniga said. “Our name isn’t as big as other programs, but we have to keep fighting each week and look at us now.”
Zuniga, a key part of Sunset’s success this season, leads Miami-Dade County in rushing, and on Thursday, became the county’s first running back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark. Through seven games, Zuniga has 1,015 yards and 11 touchdowns on 127 carries.
His 38-yard touchdown run in the first quarter put Sunset up 7-0.
Miami Springs (4-2, 4-1), which needs a win next week against Mater Academy to keep its playoff hopes alive, opened the third quarter with a time-consuming drive that took 16 plays over nine minutes.
The Golden Hawks reached the Sunset 2-yard line. But on first-and-goal, linebacker Jermaine Wheatley ripped the ball away from Springs quarterback Deandre Miles and raced over 90 yards the other way for a touchdown.
The score, however, was nullified by a penalty.
Zuniga made sure Sunset would get its points a few plays later when he caught a screen pass from quarterback Michael Cox and raced 67 yards to the end zone for a 14-0 lead.
Miles capped another long Springs drive with a 2-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to 14-7 with 5:49 left. But Sunset answered with another ball control drive powered by Zuniga to put the game away.
“Every week I tell them Week 3 is significant at Sunset for the first time in years, then week 4 and week 5 and so on,” Petisco said. “I still think we haven’t played as well as we can. I know if we come out and play a perfect game we can win this district.”