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Sunday, Mar 29, 2015

Each county team faces questions heading into season


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As last season proved, preseason prognostications don't always pan out.

By the time Springstead raced out to a 9-0 mark, claiming its first district championship since 1996 in the process, all detractors had digested a full stomach of crow.

With that in mind, it's that much more difficult to handicap the five Hernando County teams that officially embark on the 2013 season tonight.

For those program, there appears to be some critical questions to answer as each one hopes to traverse in a positive direction this fall.

There's no Bill Vonada coaching at Springstead, no Matt Breida running the ball for Nature Coast, nor Tyrail Hawkins doing just about everything on the field at Hernando.

That means the last two Hernando Today Players of the Year - Hawkins in 2011 and Breida last year - and Coaches of the Years - John Palmer, who stepped down at Hernando in spring of 2012, and Vonada - are no longer in the fold.

Now factor in district realignment, putting Central, Hernando, Nature Coast and Weeki Wachee in Class 5A, District 6 along with perennial powerhouses Pasco and South Sumter, plus a rising Zephyrhills.

Springstead, meanwhile, remains in 6A-6, where it will seek to defend its district crown against a slew of Pasco County-based squads: Fivay, Land O' Lakes, Mitchell and Sunlake.

But if each local club hopes to battle it out with those opponents for a playoff spot, or at least show significant progress, they'll have to find the right answers as they go along.

Can Springstead survive without Vonada at the helm?

In theory yes, particularly since Vonada's fingerprints remain all over the Eagles, from the top on down.

When Vonada decided to step away in December after 15 years as headman to spend more time with his family, Springstead almost immediately turned to Mike Garofano.

After a decade of on-the-job training as Vonada's defensive coordinator, it was a natural progression for Garofano to ascend to the top spot on a coaching staff that remains largely intact.

New offensive coordinator Dustin Kupcik gets to prove his mettle as a fast-rising young coach, taking over the play-calling duties Vonada had held since he started as offensive coordinator in 1996.

"Our formula for success will still be the same," Garofano said. "Ball-control offense, swarming defense, great special teams. If it ain't broke don't fix it, so we'll continue what's been working the last few years."

Beyond continuity within the coaching staff, the Eagles are also in the best shape among county teams as far as returning players.

It starts with senior Tyler Mahla, entering his third season as starting quarterback. As a junior he completed 69-of-128 passes (53.9 completion percentage) for 880 yards, with seven touchdowns against six interceptions.

Operating the Eagles' triple option, he also carried the ball 139 times for 767 yards and found the end zone himself nine times.

Junior fullback Daniel Wright was a pleasant surprise a year ago, posting 688 yards on 143 rushes, tying Mahla with nine touchdowns on the ground.

But the real intrigue in the backfield comes via the presence of senior tailback Kevin Bedford, who inexplicably didn't play in 2012 after pacing the Eagles with 699 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore.

Another senior running back, Latavious Hannah, led Springstead in receiving last year (15 catches for 212 yards, one touchdown) and might be the best athlete on the team, Garofano said.

"It'll only help us," Garofano said. "It's a good problem to have, to have to spread the ball around.

"We're going to have to find ways to get everybody the ball, but all those guys with the ball in their hands can make big plays."

Though Will Allen and Ethan Kemp are no longer around to anchor the left side of the offensive line, two seniors, All-County tackle Michael Miara and guard Jameson Peppe, solidify the right side.

On defense, Garofano admits the Eagles will miss the leadership of All-State linebacker Luke McLeod, but can still lean on the likes of junior linebacker Conor Ross (105 tackles, seven sacks last year), senior defensive lineman Jesse Cowan (78 tackles, six sacks) and junior linebacker Robert Holdway (77 tackles, four sacks).

"We have enough guys returning where our defense can be great again," Garofano said. "Guys have to step up. We've got to replace 4-5 seniors we lost. I think the guys will do that.

"I think guys kind of know what it takes to be successful. We had a real solid team last year, but what made us better was we won the turnover battle nine out of 10 games. It's huge and what we've stressed for years, ball security and getting after the ball on defense."

Each team in 6A-6 has experienced various ups and downs in recent years, and Garofano had a tough time picking out any real favorites.

"I think we're capable of beating any team on our schedule," Garofano said. "It's just a matter of coming to play.

"Our goal is to win a district title. That's what we expect, that's what our goal is this season. Our seniors want to leave the legacy behind as the only Springstead football team to win back-to-back district titles."

Will Hernando's offense click in Dwayne Mobley second year?

On one hand in 2012, Hernando advanced to the playoffs for the third year in a row, this time under first-year head coach Dwayne Mobley.

But the other hand shows a 6-5 record that was the Leopards' worst since 2008, and a failure to repeat as 6A-6 champs.

Some of that could be contributed to growing pains in Mobley's rookie run as a high school mentor, following his lengthy and ultra-successful stint at Parrott Middle School.

Mobley's new offense never quite took hold, and Hernando got outscored 191-225.

"This being our second year in the offense, it's a little more familiar with the guys," Mobley said. "I didn't think it would take as long as it did because a lot of guys ran the offense in middle school. But in middle school we just ran the base of the offense. Now we're doing more stuff with it."

Problem is he won't have the services of Hawkins, a two-time All-State selection, who rushed for 737 yards and eight touchdowns, threw for 371 yards and five scores, and hauled in five passes for 140 yards and a touchdown.

That doesn't count his work as a kick returner, nor a defensive back - he notched three interceptions.

Senior Ra'shaad Hart has shown flashes of outstanding athleticism, having totaled 838 all-purpose offensive yards and four touchdowns as a junior.

Jeremiah Jackson, also a senior, rushed for 494 yards and a couple scores, but his primary role figures to be as a linebacker, considering his 132 tackles last year.

Two more seniors, Jesse Gaudin and Connor Foradas, anchor the offensive line. However, Hart and the inexperienced duo of juniors John Coleman and Tyler Kline need to prove they can handle playing under center.

"In order for us to go on to the next level, everybody has got to step up," Mobley said. "We can't be happy and complacent with what we did last year."

While the offense has a chance to settle in, a brand new defensive system is being put into place. Shawn Bingham has stepped back into the defensive coordinator role after Mark Latsko left to become head coach at Gainesville.

Even if everything falls into place for the Leopards, climbing over Pasco and South Sumter is still a legitimate challenge.

Though Hernando defeated the Pirates in the preseason last year, Pasco went on to reach the regional finals. The Raiders downed the Leopards 38-6 last September and advanced to the regional semifinals in 4A.

"I think we've got a great chance in the district this year," Mobley said. "Our district last year was a little weaker than what the district this year is. But I think we match up better this year when you talk about the district and going past the district than last year."

What's next for Nature Coast without Breida?

If one thing has remained consistent for Nature Coast through it first nine varsity campaigns, it's the ability to churn out stud running backs.

First there was Rian Williams. Then Tevin Drake, preceding Ike Bailey.

When Breida got his turn, he rushed for over 3,000 yards and 37 touchdowns combined over the past two seasons. He was an All-State pick as a senior.

With the Sharks in perpetual search for an adequate passing attack, losing a talent like Breida would figure to decimate the offense.

Then DeShawn Smith, now a sophomore, rushed for 217 yards and a pair of long touchdowns in the spring game, and suddenly the outlook is a lot rosier.

"This is no offense to any of the other (former) running backs; they're great, they're awesome," third-year Nature Coast head coach Charles Liggett said. "But with what DeShawn Smith showed in the spring, with his work ethic, the way he approaches things, at running back I don't think we'll miss a thing. There's not going to be a drop-off."

If Smith is the real deal, he could lead an offense hoping sophomore Jamison Carnegie can solidify the quarterback position.

In addition to losing Breida to graduation, All-County wide receiver Jonathan Thomas moved to Atlanta, taking with him 26 receptions for 359 yards, and six total touchdowns.

All-County offensive guard Cody Gregory also transferred, to Durant, but junior left tackle Christian Pellage (6-foot-7, 250 pounds) has been fielding Division I offers.

So has senior Rohan Blackwood (6-foot-5, 215 pounds), chiefly for his work rushing the passer. He earned an All-County nod with 14 sacks and 23 quarterback pressures at defensive end, plus 78 tackles, including 17 behind the line.

Blackwood will miss the first two games of the season serving a suspension, pending an appeal, following his ejection in last Friday's preseason classic at Citrus.

When he returns, he'll man the weak side of the line, while a Sarasota-Riverview transfer, Bryant Warkentine (6-foot-6, 230 pounds), adds an intimidating presence on the strong side.

The Sharks will need their defensive front to do the heavy lifting, lacking the experienced linebackers who typically headline that unit.

Back-to-back 6-4 seasons and three straight years without a playoff appearance have Nature Coast itching for more.

"In our district you can go 8-2 and be at home (in the postseason)," Liggett said. "I think Pasco is at the top. I think South Sumter falls in at number two. Then I think we're up there in that next area. I think we can compete in the district.

"The plan is to compete for a district championship. Why should it be anything less? I think we have enough talent. We should be able to compete with everybody. Hopefully we do."

Is this the year Central turns the corner?

It's no secret that Central has been dealt a tough hand in recent seasons. The Bears have won a total of five games in four years, and two of those were losses turned into forfeits.

They went 1-9 in both 2011 and 2012, taking their lumps, in the words of fourth-year head coach Mike Einspahr, with an inexperienced nucleus.

"We talked about it as a team; three years ago we were playing a lot of young kids," Einspahr said. "It's their time to show the rest of the county the ability they have on a consistent basis."

Senior quarterback Cole Teater, having shown glimpses of promise while battling injuries the last two seasons, has one final chance for a breakout year.

Other seniors such as running back Robbie Bradley and wide receiver Walker Sheppard have a chance to make major impacts on the offense.

The team's two leading tacklers a year ago, junior linebackers John Templar (76 tackles) and Christian Hernandez (74 tackles), pace the defense.

"We have a lot of seniors and juniors that have played 2-3 years," Einspahr said. "A couple of years ago they were all sophomores. We were taking our lumps with them and sticking with them, but hopefully it pays off.

"Our goal, we just want to be competitive, give ourselves a chance to be in every ballgame. We want to win more than the previous year. We'd love to win 3-4 games. Everybody would love to be above .500. Anything in that area would be an improvement for our program."

Does Year 2 for Weeki Wachee bring more progress?

All things considered, Weeki Wachee's 3-7 inaugural varsity run felt like a decent showing, especially because the Hornets hung around in most of their games.

The offense at times exhibited surprising potency, yet Weeki Wachee failed to offer much resistance to its opponents, yielding 336 points.

"Defensively we improved," head coach Mark Lee said. "And offensively, I think we've got a lot of guys that have been playing, this their fourth year and they should know the offense pretty well.

"The big thing for us is we need to do a better job with turnovers this year. The biggest thing we want to strive for is to reduce our turnovers and create many more."

Junior Marcus Allen spent time at quarterback, wide receiver and running back last year and seemed to excel everywhere, gaining All-County recognition by accounting for 1,292 yards of total offense.

Senior Jon King led the county with 422 receiving yards, catching 21 balls with a county-best seven receiving touchdowns.

A healthy year out of senior quarterback David Tinch, and another big year out of the Hornets' D-I prospect, All-County left tackle Marcus Applefield (6-foot-6, 285 pounds), could mean even more offensive fireworks.

Lee, though, lamented alarmingly low numbers on his roster, severely limiting his depth.

He also wasn't terribly excited about his fledgling program having to navigate through such a beefed-up district, yet still feels the Hornets can move forward.

"I think one thing that was nice, we beat Central in the first game (last season), not many people expected that," Lee said. "We won a district game, which was nice in our first year.

"We play all the county schools this year. It'll be good to build on, to see how we compare to other teams in this county. But the ultimate goal is to make the playoffs. We'd love to have a winning record in our second varsity season."

(352) 544-5288

Central Bears

Head coach: Mike Einspahr (4th year)

District: 5A-6

2012 record: 1-9 (0-7 6A-6)

Key losses: Quadavis Battle, Taylor Claussen, Jeff Dow, Jamarcus Hayes, James Reynolds, Jordan Pregi.

Key returnees: Cody Brooks (Jr., WR), Robbie Bradley (Sr., RB), Christian Hernandez (Jr., LB), Walker Sheppard (Sr., WR), Cole Teater (Sr., QB), John Templar (Jr., LB).

Key newcomers: Austin Utter (Sr., S/LB).

What direction is the program headed?: "I'd say commitment-wise and dedication-wise, very good, we're on target. The keys are to minimize turnovers, stay healthy and stay in games. . We talked about it as a team; three years ago we were playing a lot of young kids. It's their time to show the rest of the county the ability they have on a consistent basis."

- Einspahr

Hernando Leopards

Head coach: Dwayne Mobley (2nd year)

District: 5A-6

2012 record: 6-5 (6-1 6A-6, district runners-up, lost in regional quarterfinals)

Key losses: Quentin Adams, John Bronson, Robert Hill Bronson, Darren Hambrick, O'Mar Hawkins, Tyrail Hawkins, Richard Hudson, Andrew Timmons.

Key returnees: Nick Brewer (Sr., TE/MLB), Connor Foradas (Sr., OT), Jesse Gaudin (Sr., OG/DE/MLB), Troy Grant (Sr., CB/WR), Kevin Hagood (Sr., OLB/WR/S), Ra'shaad Hart (Sr., QB/WR/FS), Jeremiah Jackson (Sr., MLB/FB).

Key newcomers: Darrin Bright (Fr., OT), Mike Jones (Jr., DT/OT), Dallas Maclachan (Jr., OLB/TE), Hunter Maclachan (Sr., OLB/WR/TE).

What direction is the program headed?: I think it's heading in a positive direction. Last year I didn't really know what to expect. This year we're starting off positive and I think we'll have a pretty good season. . In order for us to go on to the next level, everybody has got to step up. We can't be happy and complacent with what we did last year."

- Mobley

Nature Coast Sharks

Head coach: Charles Liggett (3rd year)

District: 5A-6

2012 record: 6-4 (5-2 6A-6)

Key losses: Josh Benyola, Joey Berrios, Matt Breida, Luis Espinosa, Cody Gregory, Jacquez Kincade, Sam Mazzia, Ryan Pelaez, Dominique Rawlins, Frank Sampson, Dylan Savoury, Anthony Siciliano, Jonathan Thomas.

Key returnees: Rohan Blackwood (Sr., DE/WR), Jamison Carnegie (So., QB), Christian Pellage (Jr., LT), Ryan Roscillo (Sr., WR/TE/DB), DeShawn Smith (So., RB/DB), Nick Vogel (Sr., OL).

Key newcomers: Andrew Parker (Jr., CB), Alec Perkins (Jr., CB/P), Bryant Warkentine (Sr., DE).

What direction is the program headed?: "I'd like to think we're headed up. We think we can compete in the district in the same fashion as we have in the past. We've been close for two years, but that's no good. We've got a lot of good kids. I think it has been a gradual move upward since two years ago."

- Liggett

Springstead Eagles

Head coach: Mike Garofano (1st year)

District: 6A-6

2012 record: 9-2 (6-1 6A-6, district champions, lost in regional quarterfinals)

Key losses: Will Allen, Nick Bailey, Scott Baker, Pedro Estrada, Ethan Kemp, Luke McLeod, Nic Pasarela, Joe Predoehl, Shane Scorza, Ricky Toth.

Key returnees: Tyler Anderson (Sr., TE), Kevin Bedford (Sr., RB), Jesse Cowan (Sr., OL/DL/LB), Latavious Hannah (Sr., RB/DB), Robert Holdway (Jr., LB), Tyler Mahla (Sr., QB), Dylan McLeod (Sr., LB), Michael Miara (Sr., RT), Travis O'Neil (Sr., DL), Jameson Pepe (Sr., OL), Conor Ross (Jr., LB), Austin Stock (Sr., LB), Shane Wiggins (Sr., DL), Daniel Wright (Jr., RB/LB).

Key newcomers: Brian Rae (Jr., DB).

What direction is the program headed?: "Hopefully we're still on the up and up. I think we'll go as far as our senior leaders take us this year. We'll do our best as a staff to prepare them week in and week out. It's a matter of our kids on the field executing the game plan and our leaders on the field helping carry out that plan."

- Garofano

Weeki Wachee Hornets

Head coach: Mark Lee (2nd year)

District: 5A-6

2012 record: 3-7 (1-5 4A-4)

Key losses: Jacob Cimino, Devyn Detweiler, Mitchell Gee, Garrett Greatrex, Travis Greatrex, Jacey Tarter.

Key returnees: Marcus Allen (Jr., WR/QB/DB), Marcus Applefield (Sr., LT), Branden Clifton (Sr., OL/LB), Timonte Hunter (Sr., DL), Xavier Jones (Sr., DB), Jon King (Sr., RB/FS), Brice Spaulding (Jr., OL), David Tinch (Sr., QB/K), Andrew Vreeland (Sr., FB/OLB).

Key newcomers: Devon Dupuis (So., FB/LB), Anthony Hartman (Jr., MLB), Dayonta Patterson (Jr., WR/DB), Tyler Wiley (Sr., WR/DB).

What direction is the program headed?: "I think we're going in the right direction. It'd be nice if we had more people, but we want players that want to be out there. . Like most schools in the area, depth is a big concern, but I think there's a chance to make improvements from last year."

- Lee

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