EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series on the new head football coaches in Hernando County, experiencing their first spring on the job.
The winds of change blew hard through Hernando County’s football ranks last fall, shifting the direction of three local programs.
No coaching staff has endured the highs and lows of the turbulent offseason more than the one currently guiding the reigns at Hernando High.
The school’s administration made a big splash in early December, luring Bill Vonada, Springstead’s all-time winningest headman, back to the sidelines after one year away.
Since then, the Leopards have brought in Mike Einspahr, Central’s head coach the past four seasons before he and the school mutually parted ways in November.
Later they would add Rob Kazmier, known for his efforts helping athletes in the college recruitment process as an assistant at Nature Coast, after he was not retained under the Sharks’ new regime.
Add that to a handful of coaches with established Hernando ties, such as Shawn Bigham, Brad Peters and Andrew Timmons, and the Leopards have an intriguing mix leading them through this new chapter in their history.
Hernando is working toward its spring game next Friday against Crystal River at Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium.
“It’s going all right,” Vonada said. “Certainly it’s a new atmosphere and we’re bringing a new system in, so it takes a while to get acclimated. High school coaches always want things to happen in a hurry, but in reality it’s not going to happen. But we’re seeing good things.”
Vonada freely admits he’s not used to a new beginning. He has never coached anywhere on the high school level aside from Springstead, his alma mater, where he spent one year as JV coach, two more as offensive coordinator, then the next 15 as head coach.
The last time he switched schools was 1994, when he arrived at Springstead from Powell Middle School.
“Even the physical layout of the school is different than what I’m used to,” Vonada said. “There are probably other coaches who are a lot more used to this than I am. But the people here have been really helpful in helping me find my way.”
Hernando is coming off a 3-7 season, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2009, and from the start it has been made clear that a turnaround isn’t expected overnight.
That extends beyond the school’s decision makers, to the boosters who support the team.
“Expectations are always high, but we’re being realistic,” said John Coleman, president of the Leopard Quarterback Club. “We know we’ve had a talent-laden team the last 3-4 years, but we’ve lost a lot of that talent and we’re not sure what we have coming in.
“When we told the administration what we wanted in a coach, we wanted the discipline. The community we live in doesn’t deal well with an undisciplined team.”
To that end, Vonada has a proven track record. Building young men of character became a mantra during his tenure with the Eagles.
Predictably, some returning Leopard players decided the new way of doing things wasn’t for them. Yet others, Vonada said, have embraced his standards of conduct.
“Coach Vonada has obviously got the experience, he’s come in and he’s got a routine going that looks like the majority of the kids are buying into,” said David Donato, Leopard Quarterback Club treasurer. “From an athletic standpoint, I don’t know how Hernando will look, but it’s exciting to hear how he’s doing, how he’s got the kids working in the weight room, but also in the classroom and buying into the total commitment.
“I think with Bill’s experience at Springstead, folks are looking to see not necessarily a bunch of wins on the field, but a nice, good, responsible Hernando team that’s disciplined and competitive.”
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Stylistically, Vonada figures to employ the run-heavy, triple option offense he became known for at Springstead, not a far departure from the Wing T used by John Palmer, who rebuilt the Leopards into a district champion in 2011.
With the Eagles, Vonada called the offensive plays while leaving the defense in the hands of coordinator Mike Garofano, his successor at Springstead.
No such roles have been established yet, as Vonada will wait until after the spring to determine how to organize the staff. Not that his assistants haven’t made an impact.
“I would have drowned at Hernando High School if not for Mike Einspahr, just because of the work he’s done with us,” Vonada said.
In the eyes of Vonada, as well as others in the area’s coaching ranks, Einspahr’s rocky run with the Bears wasn’t an indictment on his abilities as much as the product of a difficult situation.
“Things are going good,” Einspahr said. “The kids are working unbelievably hard so far. It’s been a very physical spring, which is good. For both Bill and myself, there are a lot of new faces and new names. It’s a new system for me, but the kids have been awesome.
“I think Bill had a lot of respect for me and working with him is great. It’s great when you can work with some with an equal amount of passion, knowledge and intensity for the game and for kids in general.”
Einspahr added that moving to Hernando has been ideal, as his two children were already attending neighboring Brooksville Elementary, his wife works nearby and he lives seven minutes away.
“It’s not very often in coaching when you make a move like this and you don’t have to uproot your family,” Einspahr said. “I feel very fortunate. And as a school, I feel they’ve embraced both Bill and myself.”
For all the coaches and players, the work has only just begun. Next week’s game represents a major steppingstone heading into the summer regimen.
“It takes time to implement a new system,” Vonada said. “We’ve got guys thinking a lot and it’s a thinking man’s game, but when the ball is snapped it can’t be as much thinking as reacting. The only way I know how to approach the game is to keep working until it’s done. We’ve got guys who are figuring that out.”
Regardless of the early returns, Vonada already appears to have the respect of those who watch the program closely.
“We told the administration, it wasn’t about wins and losses,” Coleman said. “It’s about responsible young men coming through the system. In Vonada, we think we have that. We feel Vonada is another John Palmer. We see them as one in the same.”