LAND O' LAKES - Land O' Lakes' 3-3-5 defense was bound and determined to gag the Florida Athletic Coaches Association's District 10 MVP, Springstead senior quarterback Tyler Mahla.
Land O' Lakes entered the 29th series meeting at John Benedetto Stadium at "The Swamp" permitting an impressive nine points per game.
Mahla, who arrived with nearly 4,500 combined career rushing and passing yardage, was held to a season-low 42 rushing yards on 16 carries.
The Gator defense turned heads by recovering three uncharacteristic Eagle fumbles - all in the second half.
But the Gators (7-2 overall, 2-2 Class 6A, District 6) had no solution for Springstead junior fullback Daniel Wright.
The 5-foot-10, 167-pound Wright, who arrived with 610 rushing yards, gashed the Gators with 178 yards on 28 carries, featuring three touchdowns (9, 4, 2 yards), lifting the Eagles (8-1 overall, 4-0 6A-6) to their county-record second straight district championship.
With the victory, SHS sealed its county-record fourth district championship in 38 seasons. The Spring Hill gridders will host Citrus in a 6A-Region II quarterfinal Nov. 15 at Booster Stadium.
The Golden Hurricanes opened the season by dismantling the Eagles at the Citrus Bowl, 42-14.
Since then, SHS has reeled off eight straight wins under rookie head coach Mike Garofano - another school and county record.
"This (win) was amazing," said the 17-year-old Wright, a 2012 All-County gridiron selection. Winning back-to-back districts and being the first Hernando County team to achieve that is the highlight of my life. It's really been a blessing playing with these guys."
According to Wright, credit belongs to the Eagle O-line (Hunter Hramika, James Kern, Austin Hampton, Jameson Peppe and Michael Miara), "They (Land O' Lakes) were keying on Tyler, but you can't stop all of us. The reason is our O-line. They pushed guys out of the way all night long."
On a night where the SHS defense was strafed by the pass-happy Gators for 72 snaps and 407 yards, Wright said, "Give it up to our defense. When we really needed that goal-line stand that was something. . (Linebacker Austin) Stock's tackle on third down was huge. The momentum shifted right after that. We did what we had to do."
Mahla, who clicked on 3-of-3 passing for 31 yards, managed to break two more school records. He added his school-record 15th rushing touchdown of the season on a 1-yard dive over the center Hampton in the third quarter.
Both of the Eagles' second-half touchdowns were direct results of cashing in on a pair of Gator turnovers.
According to the stats, the Gators entered the game with four turnovers in 440 snaps.
In Springstead's fourth straight series win over Land O' Lakes, the slick 6-foot, 155-pound Mahla broke the 2004 mark of fullback Tim Dow (14 touchdowns and 84 points). Mahla enters next Friday's Hernando County championship game against Hernando at Booster Stadium with 90 points in a season.
Senior halfback Kevin Bedford and Wright each overcame lost fumbles, as Bedford finished with 62 yards and his fourth touchdown of the season (21 yards).
Placekicker Tyler Toth converted 4-of-5 PATs (his last kick glanced off the left upright) while the Eagles defense forced three Gator turnovers.
Land O' Lakes was led by 6-foot-6 junior quarterback James Pensyl. Pensyl connected on a game-high 21-of-40 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns - both to junior wide receiver Ethan Weilant (15, 23 yards).
Pensyl added his team-leading fifth rushing score from seven yards out with 4:31 left in the game.
Land O' Lakes' upset chances soured when kicker Andy Dowler misfired on three field goal attempts (30, 48, 21 yards) and SHS survived a first-and- goal at the Eagle 1 behind a tremendous goal-line stand early in the third quarter.
Pensyl was intercepted by senior Latavious Hannah in the third quarter. It was only Pensyl's second interception of the season and first since Week 1.
On special teams, Nathan Kocolowski and Robert Holdway recovered two of Toth's angled kicks while senior defensive tackle Shane Wiggins blocked Dowler's 21-yard field goal attempt and notched a pair of sacks on Pensyl.
The win may have come at a steep cost.
SHS' three-year starter at inside linebacker, junior Conor Ross, was helped off the field with four minutes remaining due to a knee injury. Ross arrived as the Eagles' leading tackler - only behind county-leader Hernando senior Jeremiah Jackson in tackles - with 99.
According to Garofano, "Conor was good enough to go back in. It might have been a scare. He might have suffered a sprain. We'll monitor him. If it's still bothering him, he won't play next week."
The Eagles' eighth mentor referenced the third quarter's goal-line stand as the game's turning point.
With first down at the Eagle 1, Pensyl threw incomplete and was stopped for no gain on second down. That was no easy feat as he led the Gators in rushing with 73 of his team's net 98 rushing yards.
On third down, Stock folded junior Larenz Scroggins in the backfield for a 3-yard loss.
On fourth down, Pensyl's pass to the right flat was so high and wide that Eagle principal Susan Duvall had to duck not to get clobbered.
"The goal-line stand was unbelievable. We were fortunate, we brought the house on third down and Stock made a huge hit," recalled Garofano. "We were afraid Pensyl would scramble. That stop was huge; that's why defense wins championships."
"Give Land O' Lakes credit. They were up for this game. They're well-coached and game-planned us well," noted Garofano. "I was more nervous about this game than any other game this year. I just thought our coaches, including Coach (Frank) Vitale, Coach (Frank) Hynes, did a great job of preparing our guys.
"Look, I have a lot of respect for the Land O' Lakes coaches and their quarterback. Since Week 1, we haven't had someone push us around on defense the way those guys did tonight," detailed Garofano, who received a congratulatory water-coolor bath in the final 30 seconds.
On what he was most proud of, "We had a couple uncharacteristic fumbles and several uncharacteristic penalties (season-high 12 for 81 yards). We had a lot of key stops all night long," explained Garofano. "We won this as a team across all three phases. Special teams came up tremendous with two recoveries and a blocked kick. Against such a potent offense with so many weapons, our guys deserve the credit - they stepped up to the challenge."
Springstead 34, Land O' Lakes 21
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
SPG 7 14 7 6 -- 34
LOL 7 0 7 7 -- 21
SPG - Wright 9 run (T. Toth kick).
LOL - Weilant 15 pass from Pensyl (Dowler kick).
SPG - Wright 2 run (T. Toth kick).
SPG - Bedford 21 run (T. Toth kick).
LOL - Weilant 23 pass from Pensyl (Dowler kick).
SPG - Mahla 1 run (T. Toth kick).
SPG - Wright 4 run (T. Toth kick fails).
LOL - Pensyl 7 run (Dowler kick).
First Downs 13 20
Atts./Rushing Yds. 56-282 32-98
Comp./Pass Atts./Int. 3-3-0 21-40-1
Passing Yds. 31 309
Total Offense 59-313 72-407
Fumbles/Lost 3-3 4-2
Return Yards 4-68 5-35
Punts/Avg. 3-37.3 2-26.0
Penalties 12-81 7-62