Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
Sports

Eagles soared high in 2013

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Yes, Hernando County these days encompasses six high schools that participate in FHSAA-sanctioned athletics.

But as the calendar flips to a new year, it's difficult to argue that 2013 belonged to Springstead.

While there are some exceptions in certain sports, in general the county's largest school in terms of enrollment had plenty to celebrate over the past 12 months.

The proof is in the headlines that highlighted the athletic year within the county. Out of the top five, as selected by Hernando Today, four have a Springstead connection.

Here's a look back at the stories that stood out most.

No. 5: Rain wreaks havoc on Springstead baseball

It had been something of a Cinderella season, or at least a surprising turnaround, for Springstead's baseball team.

A controversial coaching change divided the Eagles, leaving new headman Jim Diven to try to pull the program back together.

A rocky regular season gave way to a pulsating playoff push, a district championship and the first two regional victories in team history.

When unbeaten Melbourne was stunned in the semifinals by Orlando-Edgewater, suddenly Springstead had a realistic shot at reaching the state finals.

Then came a trip to Edgewater for a Class 6A, Region II final on May 10.

Rain had been a constant presence plaguing the state series for spring sports, and it would have an enormous impact on this contest.

The Eagles had blown a 5-2 lead and fallen behind, 6-5, on Zach Vandergrift's dramatic fifth-inning grand slam.

But Brandon Brosher's three-run triple, and subsequent run scored on a passed ball, restored a 9-6 advantage the next inning - until the skies opened up.

A downpour, combined with Edgewater's lack of field lights, forced umpires to call the game, reverting back to the last completed inning and wiping away Springstead's rally.

Tempers flared as Springstead accused Edgewater of intentionally allowing its field to become unplayable, knowing the dwindling daylight was on its side.

Local police ended up clearing the facility. An eventual appeal to the FHSAA was never heard, further upsetting the Springstead faithful.

"We feel cheated." Diven said then. "We had a game taken away from us. I feel we could have won the whole tournament."

No. 4: Vonada heads to Hernando

Three county schools - Central, Hernando and Nature Coast - were in the market for a new head football coach over the past several weeks.

The Leopards filled their vacancy first, and did so with an eye-opening hire of former Springstead coach Bill Vonada on Dec. 6.

Nearly a year to the day earlier, the story had been Vonada stepping down from his post with the Eagles following the most successful of his 15 seasons at the helm.

Having recharged his coaching batteries, Vonada decided to leave his alma mater for the Hernando gig, taking over a club that slipped to 3-7 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

It was Hernando that reached out to Vonada, never expanding its search outside the county school system.

"There was no need to continue the search, because we found exactly what we needed," Hernando athletic director Kevin Bittinger said.

Bittinger admitted the school isn't taking a win-now mentality into this new era for its football squad, preaching patience in order to build a stable, successful program.

Vonada also published a book over the summer, "A Season of Hope," and after guiding the Eagles to an 80-74 mark and four playoff appearances he'll begin authoring a new chapter in his coaching career in 2014.

"I know they've got a great tradition and great support in the community," Vonada said. "It's just a matter of getting everyone on the same page and moving in the same direction. I think that's what everybody wants."

Central recently tabbed Seminole High associate head coach Chris Sands to fill its opening. Nature Coast has yet to announce a hire.

No. 3: Christian Arroyo drafted in first round

Christian Arroyo had barely finished leading Hernando High to its fourth straight Elite Eighth appearance this spring when he made county history.

When the San Francisco Giants selected him with the 25th pick of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft on June 6, he became the county's initial first-round pick in the June Amateur Draft.

"It's been pretty surreal," Arroyo said then. "It's hard to put into words exactly what's going on. But being the first pick of the San Francisco Giants, it's an incredible feeling."

In another county first, three former players were drafted, including Nature Coast grad Mike Adams (seventh round by the Boston Red Sox) and Brosher (36th round by the New York Mets).

Arroyo, a shortstop, had a spectacular senior year, hitting .524 with 13 doubles, three triples, 11 home runs, 35 runs batted in and 42 runs scored.

Not only was he Hernando Today's Player of the Year, he was tabbed as 5A Player of the Year and finished second in the voting for Mr. Baseball by the Florida Dairy Farmers, and was named to Baseball America's High School All-America first team.

But he wasn't done. After spurning a scholarship from the University of Florida, he signed with the Giants for the $1,866,500 assigned to his draft slot.

He ended up as MVP of the Arizona League playing for the Giants' Rookie-level affiliate.

Over 45 games he hit .326 with 18 doubles, five triples, two home runs, 39 RBI and 47 runs.

The future certainly appears bright for Arroyo, as he attempts to become the first position player to graduate from a county school and go on to play in the majors.

"It's an honor," Arroyo said. "But at the end of the day, the draft is one step of the way.

"It's a big deal for me and my family. But my ultimate goal is to make it to the big leagues."

No. 2: Springstead football reaches third round

Coming off 2012, when the Eagles started off 9-0 and won their first district championship since 1996, a repeat performance may have seemed unlikely.

Yet Springstead managed to duplicate that showing and accomplished so much more.

With longtime defensive coordinator Mike Garofano replacing Vonada as head coach, the Eagles became the first county team to advance to a third postseason round.

"It's unbelievable. It's indescribable," Garofano said after Springstead defeated Gainesville in a 6A-II semifinal on Nov. 22. "These guys, they don't want to stop playing. Third round, this is the only team in county history to do it. No one can ever take that away from them. They'll go down as one of the best teams in the county, ever."

The Eagles bounced back from a season-opening loss to Citrus, 42-14, to reel off a county-record 11 wins in a row.

In the process, they captured a second consecutive 6A-District 6 crown to become the first repeat district champions in county history.

They additionally gained redemption by bouncing Citrus in the regional quarterfinals, 21-6, and followed by becoming the first county team to ever beat Gainesville, 27-7.

The journey ended on Nov. 29, with a 41-0 loss at eventual state runner-up and perennial powerhouse Seffner-Armwood.

At 11-2, Springstead finished with a new county mark for wins in a single season and sported a pair of 1,000-yard rushers - senior quarterback Tyler Mahla (county-best 1,240) and junior fullback Daniel Wright (1,186) - for the first time in school history.

Other new school records set included most points in a season (328), most touchdowns (46) and most rushing touchdowns (38).

Mahla had a particularly strong season under center, adding 805 passing yards and scoring a school-record 18 touchdowns, and garnered Florida Athletic Coaches Association District 10 MVP honors.

All in all it was a tremendous run for the Eagles, one unmatched in county lore.

"Unbelievable (season)," Mahla said following the Armwood game. "I still can't believe it. It's probably the greatest thing to ever happen in my life."

No. 1: Springstead wrestling makes it three straight

Even with back-to-back 2A state championships already in tow, Springstead was no lock to collect a third in a row.

Graduations figured to weaken the Eagles' lineup, at least on paper, yet they were in the mix for the top spot once again back in February at The Lakeland Center.

It turned into a nail-biter, as Springstead totaled 98 points over the two-day event, and had to sweat out a few finals bouts that involved grapplers from second-place Lakeland-Lake Gibson (94.5) and third-place Boca Raton-Olympic Heights (93).

The victory was made possible in large part due to Jordan Rivera collecting the team's lone individual state championship at 138 pounds, earning a 12-3 major decision over previously unbeaten Joey Miuccio of Melbourne High.

"Going into the finals, I knew we were in a tough spot, but I wasn't going to accept anything less than domination," Rivera said. "Honestly, I've never wanted to win a match more than this.

"Coming in it was either win states or die trying."

Conor Ross shook off a knee injury to place third at 170. Billy Swift snagged fourth at 160, and Matt Landgraff and Michael McDonald took fifth at 106 and 113 respectively.

Springstead became the fifth team to win at least three straight state crowns, joining Brandon (2001-13), Oviedo (2004-07), South Dade (1995-97 and 1999-01) and Flagler Palm Coast (1993-95).

Over the course of the season, the Eagles won a school-record nine tournaments, a ninth straight district title and third consecutive regional championship.

No other county program, in any sport, has accomplished a state three-peat.

The Eagles pulled off the feat despite losing head coach Eric Swensen, who stepped down to move to Minnesota after the 2011-12 season and left the program in the capable hands of his top assistant, Sal Basile.

Though injuries and attrition have hit the Springstead lineup so far this season, the Eagles remain one of the state's top squads, winning their first three tournaments.

With Brandon shifting back to 2A, the odds of making it four state titles in a row decreased considerably. But regardless of whether the Eagle wrestlers are once again the county's leading headliners in 2014, they figure to remain in the spotlight.

cbernhardt@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5288

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