Building seems like the recurrent theme for Hernando County football this season.
There are new head coaches at Central, Hernando and Nature Coast. Weeki Wachee is still trying to build from the ground up after going 3-7 each of its first two varsity campaigns.
Then there’s Springstead. The Eagles aren’t starting from scratch. Instead, they are attempting to build a winning tradition.
They are coming off an 11-2 showing in 2013, becoming the first team in the county to ever claim consecutive district titles and advance three rounds deep into the postseason.
Though that magical run ended in a regional final, it put Springstead on the proverbial map. The Eagles start the season tied for 10th in the Associated Press Class 6A state poll.
“I see us competing. I don’t see any letup or letdown,” Springstead head coach Mike Garofano said. “Anything less than a district title is a disappointment for us. We told the kids that we’ve set the bar, we’ve raised expectations, but nothing is going to be handed to us.”
The Eagles now must prove they can reload, especially without their starting quarterback the past three years, the graduated Tyler Mahla.
Not only did Mahla deftly run Springstead’s triple option attack, he paced the county in rushing with 1,240 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“It’s tough,” Garofano said. “He was a stud. He was our all-everything. We’re definitely going to miss him, but we’ve got to move on.
“Nothing has changed. We might not be as athletically gifted as with Tyler, but we’ll have high expectations for anyone who steps into that role.”
Junior Victor Koerick has been the starter under center in the spring and last week’s preseason contest. Sophomores Sebastian Rivera and Jordan Wright are also in competition for playing time at that position.
Garofano believes the Eagles are significantly well-stocked at running back, starting with senior fullback Daniel Wright.
A two-time All-County selection, Wright rushed for 1,186 yards and 10 scores as a junior, and totaled 140 yards and found the end zone three times in last week’s exhibition against Hudson.
Sophomores Dominique Walker and T.J. Owens, as well as freshman Randy Morgan, three players Garofano referred to as “home-run hitters,” also figure to receive carries, behind a line returning three starters in center Austin Hampton, left guard James Kern and left tackle Hunter Hramika.
As for the defensive unit Garofano has cultivated into one of the finest in the area going back to his lengthy tenure as defensive coordinator, it starts with senior linebacker Conor Ross.
Last year Ross paced the team in tackles with 114 and added a team-high tying six sacks despite missing the final four games with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
He’s back at full strength, and Garofano said of Ross, “He’s the leader, the go-to guy. The kids look up to him and we’re going to lean on him.
“His knee feels good. He’s up 30-35 pounds from last year. His 40 time is faster than last year. He’s faster, bigger, stronger and fully healthy. We haven’t held him back at all.”
Two other All-County picks from last season, senior linebacker Robert Holdway (100 in 2013) and senior defensive back Dylan McLeod (78 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions) are also back in the fold.
Springstead once again figures to battle Land O’ Lakes and Sunlake for the top spot in 6A-District 6.
“We’re striving to be that program that kids want to play for and don’t just want to be known in Hernando County,” Garofano said. “We want to be known throughout the North Suncoast, throughout the state. We want to make it a habit to make the playoffs. That’s what we expect now.”
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Garofano’s predecessor and mentor, Bill Vonada, has returned to the sidelines at Hernando High, while rookie head coaches Chris Sands and Justin Worden were installed at Central and Nature Coast respectively.
The Bears and Sharks both got off on the right foot last week with impressive preseason wins.
Nature Coast went 4-6 last year, suffering through its first losing season since 2005. But the Sharks boast the county’s top collegiate prospect, senior left tackle Christian Pellage who recently committed to the University of South Carolina.
Junior DeShawn Smith, the team’s leading rusher with 719 yards and 10 touchdowns, is back and quarterback Jamison Carnegie, a junior, had a strong preseason performance going 8-of-12 passing for 157 yards.
Inside linebacker Dylan Miller, a senior All-County pick with 114 tackles a year ago, and senior strong safety Leshaun Gray headline the defense.
“My biggest expectation for them is to just improve,” Worden said. “Every day we’ve got to get better. We want to beat everyone in the county; we want to win the district. That’s what we’re working toward. But my biggest thing is improvement.
“We want to be 6-4 or better. We want to have a winning season. If we make a push to get to the playoffs, that gives us an opportunity to win the first playoff game in school history. I think we’re hoping for that and hopefully we’re pointing them in the right direction.”
Hernando has to bounce back from a 3-7 record and its first time missing the playoffs since 2009.
Though Vonada’s 15 years guiding Springstead has inspired confidence and excitement in those associated with the Leopards, they have also preached patience.
Senior linebacker Steven Delaine is the team’s lone returning All-County selection and will be “the voice of the defense,” according to Vonada.
Offensively, with senior Tyler Kline at quarterback, the Leopards figure to begin utilizing at least a form of the option system Vonada made a staple with the Eagles. Senior D’Angelo Fagin ran for four touchdowns in a preseason loss at River Ridge.
“It’ll be a successful season if our team represents the school well and we get better every week,” Vonada said. “We want to go 1-0. That’s always our goal.”
Unfortunately for Hernando, it must make back-to-back trips to Jacksonville to start the season, facing Bolles and Bishop Kenny.
“We’ve got 10 regular-season games and six (opponents) made the playoffs, and three of them went to the third round or better,” Vonada said. “It’s not a schedule for the faint of heart.”
Sands, conversely, believes the early portion of the Bears’ slate, featuring games at Hudson and The Villages plus a home contest versus Poinciana, is conducive to starting off in a positive direction.
“We definitely have the talent do it, now we just have to put in the hard work,” Sands said. “As long as we do use the stuff we’ve done in the summer and spring, the kids have worked really hard and I think we can compete in this district. I really expect this team to do big things this year, I really, truly do.”
That would be a pleasant turnaround from Central’s perspective, considering the team has gone 6-44 going back to 2009 and three of those wins were losses later changed due to forfeit.
Leading tackler Chris Hernandez, a senior linebacker, returns on defense alongside fellow senior linebacker John Templar. Senior Cody Brooks has impressed Sands under center.
Sands believes strongly in his strength and conditioning program, and injuries have been a reoccurring issue for the Bears the past few seasons.
Overall the former Florida A&M offensive lineman remains optimistic despite the recent history of his new team, and the Bears’ 14-9 triumph at Williston last Friday supports his outlook.
“I think we’ll surprise some people out there and get Central football back on the map,” Sands said.
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Head coach Mark Lee has made it clear that he’s no longer accepting moral victories for his Weeki Wachee squad.
“Everyone wants to play in the postseason, that’s an obvious goal,” Lee said. “For us, let’s have our first non-losing season. Let’s be realistic and see what we can build on.”
The Hornets will lean on junior running back Shawn O’Gorman on offense, as well as senior receiver Dayonta Patterson, an All-County pick last year after leading the county in receptions (29) and receiving yards (344).
In last week’s preseason game against Lecanto, O’Gorman ran 20 times for 145 yards, while Patterson caught nine passes for 68 yards.
Weeki Wachee is breaking in a new quarterback with sophomore Alex Cromie now at the helm.
Lee hopes that having a full coaching staff for the first time in school history will make a difference
“We’ve got to be consistent,” Lee said. “That starts with kids being committed and being there for the long haul.
“We’ve got to be more productive on offensive opportunities to score in the red zone and eliminate turnovers. Defensively, we need do a better job tackling and stopping the run.”
The biggest issue for all the county squads aside from Springstead is maneuvering through 5A-6.
Reigning district champ South Sumter has won 23 straight regular-season games and is ranked second in the state. Pasco also received votes in the state poll, and Zephyrhills should contend for a playoff spot, as well.
“There are not any easy games,” Vonada said. “It’ll be a battle week in and week out. With a district that size, one upset can set things into turmoil.”