SPRING HILL - The initial play in the 36th meeting between the county's oldest gridiron programs - Hernando and host Springstead - served as an omen of sorts for the visiting Leopards, en route to a 41-20 defeat.
In a season where, according to pregame chatter, second-year Hernando skipper Dwayne Mobley admitted, "we haven't done a good enough job on all the little things" HHS placekicker Ty'Quan Carr attempted to seize the game's early momentum behind a game-opening onside kick.
Only problem was on his approach, he nicked the tee. The ball traveled two yards and stopped. Springstead possession at the Leopard 42.
The botched onside kick was the first gaffe, but not the last.
To pull off a huge upset, the Purple and Gold realized they had to protect the football. Hadn't the Leopards won all three games that they'd won the turnover battle (Weeki Wachee, Nature Coast and Central)?
Hernando, which arrived at minus-9 in turnovers for the season, fumbled the football five times, losing three to SHS defenders Robert Holdway, Jesse Cowan and Juan Espinosa.
HHS signal callers, who arrived with a county-high 11 interceptions, threw two more picks to Richard McCabe and Austin Stock.
Springstead's offense, which arrived averaging 338 yards per game, churned out 342.
More importantly, the Eagles overcame two turnovers (one lost fumble, one interception), a game-high 11 penalties for 88 yards, and rode the strength of a dazzling fake field goal and junior fullback Daniel Wright's 138 yards and two touchdowns to their 10th Hernando County championship.
"We were a little worried early on," noted SHS' eighth mentor Mike Garofano. "Hernando is athletic and plays physical. I thought they'd make plays. I just thought we'd wear them down with our ball control."
On the game's play of the game, a successful fake field goal, "That was fun," he said. "That play lifted up the whole sideline. Mahla made a perfect no-look pass and Toth caught it in stride. It was a lot of fun. Give credit to the kids. We called the play, they executed it perfectly."
On what Coach Garofano was most proud of, he said, "This group all plays together. Nobody complains about the touches - it's the ultimate team here - there are no individuals."
Despite permitting 120 rushing yards,119 passing yards and three touchdowns, Garofano was not alarmed.
"I'm OK with our defense. They (Hernando) put up 20, but they only had one solid touchdown. One came on a short field and another came as a direct result of a tipped pass," he said.
On Wright's spectacular efforts, Garofano said, "There's a reason we call it a triple option. Against us, you have to pick your poison; if guys gang up on Mahla, Wright, Bedford and Hannah can hurt you - that's the beauty of the triple option."
???Down 8-7 after 12 minutes, the Eagles (9-1 overall, 4-0 county) tied their own school record set a year ago with their ninth consecutive win since being blasted by the Citrus Golden Hurricanes in Inverness in the season opener, 42-14.
The win marked the first time in a decade - since 2003 - that SHS completed a regular season with a perfect 5-0 home mark.
Next week, SHS seeks rare air in hosting a Class 6A, Region II quarterfinal at Booster Stadium.
The Eagles face the 9-1 'Canes, who crushed Crystal River Friday, 50-6, attempting to become the first Spring Hill squad to ever win six home games in a season, capture their first-ever home playoff game (to date, they're 0-for-3) and become the school's first-ever 10-game winner.
On a cool Friday evening, SHS, who played without two starting defenders in the lineup (cornerback Brian Rae/collarbone; middle linebacker Conor Ross/knee) trailed after one quarter before scoring 20 unanswered points to solve the Leopards (3-7 overall, 3-1 county) for the 15th time over the past 21 seasons.
The Leopards still lead the series, 21-15, winning the first 15 meetings before 1993.
After exchanging punts to open the game, Springstead drew first blood following Latavious Hannah's excellent 27-yard punt return of a 33-yard Justin Roberts punt.
From a short porch at the Leopard 23, SHS needed three plays to open the scoring.
Springstead senior quarterback Tyler Mahla, who finished 6-of-8 passing for 118 yards, launched his third touchdown pass of the season on a 22-yard corner route to senior Joe Jeffords.
Placekicker Tyler Toth, who arrived 29-of-32 in point-afters, followed with the first of five successful boots at 6:05, 7-0.
Three plays later, HHS senior southpaw signal caller Ra'Shaad Hart (1-of-5 passing) clicked with a perfectly thrown 46-yard scoring pass to senior wideout Troy Grant. Hart's third TD pass of the season would be his only completion on the night.
Grant's longest reception of the season - previous long was 38 yards against Central - was followed by a successful two-point conversion by Hart. That two-pointer was the Leopards' only successful two-pointer this season, 8-7.
After the teams exchanged four punts, the hosts strung together an eight-play, 64-yard scoring drive.
Wright, who arrived ranked third in the county with 777 yards on 139 carries, toted the ball three times, including the clincher from 16 yards out.
The usually reliable Toth, however, hooked the ensuing extra point with 5:41 left before the intermission, 13-8.
Four snaps later, McCabe swiped an errant pass by Kline.
SHS pounced on the opportunity navigating 77 yards on 10 plays. Hannah's longest reception of the season, 53 yards from Mahla, set up the Eagles' third score.
Mahla, who needed only nine yards to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in a single season, finished with 22 yards on 13 carries.
Mahla's 1-yard QB keeper capped the drive and helped pad his school record with his 16th rushing touchdown of the season with 25.2 seconds left in the first half, 20-8.
On the third offensive snap of the second half, Hart was intercepted by Stock, who switched from inside backer to middle linebacker in the absence of the two-time All-County middle linebacker Ross.
Mahla went upstairs in an attempt to capitalize, but senior receiver Brandon Geiger fell down. Instead, Brian Duncan intercepted the ball.
But two plays later form the Eagle 16, Kevin Hagood lost the handle and Holdway recovered.
Seven plays collected 18 yards to the Leopard 3-yard line before SHS was flagged on a procedure call.
On fourth-down-and-goal from the Leopard 8 arrived the perhaps the play of the decade.
Long snapper Malcolm Fitts zipped the ball back to the holder Mahla as Toth appeared to line up for a chippy 25-yard field goal attempt.
Instead, Garofano rolled the dice on a fake.
Once Mahla got the ball, he hurled a no-look pass over his shoulder - right into the arms of Toth, who was running laterally from left to right. The ball landed perfectly in his arms and he scooted untouched around right end.
A huge roar of approval emanated from the Eagle fans, who couldn't believe the 8-yard touchdown run with 6:36 showing, 27-8.
With two minutes left in the third quarter, HHS received a break. Mahla attempted to throw away a pass that was ruled a fumble, which the Leopards recovered for a 24-yard loss at the Eagle 5.
After an offside penalty versus the hosts, Jeremiah Jackson covered the final three yards to pay dirt. Jackson finished with a game-high 67 yards on 13 carries highlighted by a 1-yard touchdown run. Hart's subsequent two-point run failed, 27-14.
Hannah again bolstered SHS' special teams with a solid 26-yard return.
On the next snap, Wright bolted 55 yards for his second touchdown of the night and his eighth of the season. His longest run this season eclipsed last week's 43-yarder at Land O' Lakes with 59 seconds remaining, 34-14.
At just under seven minutes remaining, Roberts shanked a 6-yard punt that Espinosa nearly blocked. Instead, Hannah returned the ball 13 yards to the Leopard 3.
On the next snap, Hannah was rewarded by scoring his first rushing touchdown of the season.
Toth converted his 34th PAT of the season with 6:36 left, 41-14.
With 20.8 seconds remaining, Kline (5-of-12, 73 yards) threw a pass that was tipped in the air by an Eagle defender near the goal line that Shevon Nathan alertly snagged and carried into the end zone to complete an odd 10-yard touchdown pass.
Jackson was stopped short on the ensuing two-point conversion, closing the books.
From a boisterous Eagle locker room, "I'm really proud of our O-line (Hunter Hramika, James Kern, Austin Hampton, Jameson Peppe and Michael Miara), each of those guys stepped up," described the 18-year-old Mahla. "Tonight, we stumbled out of the gates, but we knew we had to bring our 'A' game."
On the fake field goal, "Coach (Garofano) has prepared us well," he said. "We've practiced it most of the year. We're prepared to execute it if they (coaches) call the play."
Looking ahead, "We haven't peaked yet, not even close" declared Mahla. "This week, I wasn't really concerned with reaching 1,000 yards; all I want is a 'W.'
The 17-year-old Cowan, who was in on at least six solo tackles, said, "Sure we played well tonight, but it's never good enough. What I want is 10 (wins). We came up a little short last year. We're not done yet, there are too many seniors here."
"I had a bad taste in my mouth for a year after we lost to Nature Coast (in the season finale)," noted the 17-year-old Wright. "We didn't want to taste it again this year."
On Citrus, "We want to peak in the playoffs," he said. "We're absolutely not done playing better."
Springstead 41, Hernando 20
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
HER 8 0 6 6 -- 20
SPG 7 13 14 7 -- 41
SPG - Jeffords 22 pass from Mahla (T.Toth kick)
HER - Grant 46 pass from Hart (Hart run).
SPG - Wright 16 run (T. Toth kick fails).
SPG - Mahla 1 run (T. Toth kick).
SPG - T. Toth 8 run (T. Toth kick).
HER - Jackson 1 run (Hart run fails).
SPG - Wright 55 run (T. Toth kick).
SPG - Hannah 3 run (T. Toth kick).
HER - Nathan 10 pass from Kline (Jackson run fails).
First Downs 10 11
Atts./Rushing Yds. 30-120 50-226
Comp./Pass Atts./Int. 6-17-2 6-8-1
Passing Yds. 119 118
Total Offense 47-239 58-342
Fumbles/Lost 5-3 2-1
Return Yards 7-31 5-89
Punts/Avg. 4-24.3 5-29.2
Penalties 3-31 11-88
All-Time Hernando County Football Championships (1978-2013)
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
YR SCHOOL HEAD COAC W-L
1978 Brooksville-Hernando Wood, Chuck 1-0
1979 Brooksville-Hernando Palmer, Dub 1-0
1980 Brooksville-Hernando Palmer, Dub 1-0
1981 Brooksville-Hernando Palmer, Dub 1-0
1982 Brooksville-Hernando Palmer, Dub 1-0
1983 Brooksville-Hernando Moxley, Ben 1-0
1984 Brooksville-Hernando Hemmond, George 1-0
1985 Brooksville-Hernando Turner, Vernon 1-0
1986 Brooksville-Hernando Turner, Vernon 1-0
1987 Brooksville-Hernando Turner, Vernon 1-0
1988 Brooksville-Hernando Imhoff, Mike 1-0
1989 Brooksville-Hernando Imhoff, Mike 1-0
1990 Brooksville-Hernando Imhoff, Mike 2-0
1991 Brooksville-Hernando Imhoff, Mike 2-0
1992 Brooksville-Hernando Imhoff, Mike 2-0
1993 Spring Hill-Springstead Browning, Bill 2-0
1994 NA 1-1
1995 Spring Hill-Springstead Browning, Bill 2-0
1996 Spring Hill-Springstead McCoy, Pat 2-0
1997 Spring Hill-Springstead McCoy, Pat 2-0
1998 Brooksville-Central Crognale, Steve 2-0
1999 Brooksville-Hernando Browning, Bill 2-0
2000 Brooksville-Hernando Browning, Bill 2-0
2001 Brooksville-Central Crognale, Steve 2-0
2002 Brooksville-Hernando Browning, Bill 2-0
2003 Spring Hill-Springstead Vonada, Bill 2-0
2004 Spring Hill-Springstead Vonada, Bill 2-0
2005 Spring Hill-Springstead Vonada, Bill 3-0
2006 Brooksville-Central Lohrey, Cliff 2-1
2006 Brooksville-NCT Joyner, Jamie 2-1
2007 Brooksville-Central Lohrey, Cliff 3-0
2008 Spring Hill-Springstead Vonada, Bill 2-1
2008 Brooksville-NCT Joyner, Jamie 2-1
2009 Brooksville-NCT Lee, Mark 3-0
2010 Brooksville-Hernando Palmer, John 3-0
2011 Brooksville-Hernando Palmer, John 3-0
2012 Brooksville-Hernando Mobley, Dwayne 2-1
2012 Spring Hill-Springstead Vonada, Bill 2-1
2012 Brooksville-NCT Liggett, Charles 2-1
2013 Spring Hill-Springstead Garofano, Mike 3-0
Hernando County Football Championships
Spring Hill-Springstead 10