Springstead at Anclote, 7 p.m.
One year ago, Springstead entered the spring coming off perhaps its best season in program history, starting off 9-0 and earning its first district title since 1996.
With longtime defensive coordinator Mike Garofano taking over as head coach, the question was what the Eagles could do for an encore.
They certainly delivered, piecing together possibly the greatest campaign the county has ever seen, becoming the first local squad to advance three rounds deep into the postseason, finishing 11-2 while earning a second straight district crown and reaching the regional finals.
Can Springstead keep its recent run going this fall? The Eagles will at least begin to answer that question when they travel to Pasco County Thursday night.
“It’s been going good. The guys are working hard. We’re getting better each day,” Garofano said. “We’re encouraged with the turnout. The numbers are good.
“Overall, the energy level and intensity and focus have been there all spring.”
The Eagles will certainly have a different look from last season, most notably under center.
Senior Tyler Mahla completed this third year as the starting quarterback by earning All-State and Hernando Today Player of the Year honors, but his impending graduation creates a significant void.
Sophomore Victor Koerick will get the start tonight, and freshman Jordan Wright will receive some snaps, as well.
“It’s still up in the air,” Garofano said. “We want to see command of the huddle, command of the offense, run the offense effectively and efficiently, and protect the football foremost.”
With Mahla gone, the onus falls on running back Daniel Wright, who enters his senior year as a two-time All-County selection, having rush for 1,186 yards and 10 touchdowns as junior.
“He’s been the focal point of our offense the last two years,” Garofano said. “Mahla is the one who stirred the drink last year, but everything went through Dan. Our whole offense went through him. We’ll lean on him a little bit more and ask him to do more than he has in the past.”
Defensively, Springstead are without leading tackler Conor Ross this spring. The junior linebacker is still recovering from surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament, which he injured toward the end of the last regular season, but he’ll return in the fall.
Second-leading tackler Juan Espinosa, another junior linebacker, remains out indefinitely with the severe knee injury he suffered in last year’s postseason, forcing him to have reconstructive surgery.
That leaves linebackers Robert Holdway and Dylan McLeod, both All-County picks as juniors, to step up and lead on that side of the ball.
“There are position battles up and down the defensive line, linebacker and secondary, as well as the offensive line,” Garofano said. “Everything is being evaluated. No one has a starting job etched in stone yet.”
Anclote went 6-5 in each of the past two seasons, both times making the playoffs and exiting in the first round.
“I know they’ve lost quite a bit off last year’s team, but they’re always athletic,” Garofano said. “They’re a formidable opponent, a district champion from last year. We’re both looking at this as a good test.
“Any game I’ve played in my life I’ve wanted to win. I’m not saying I don’t want to win and it doesn’t mean anything. I want to win and I want the kids to want to win.”
This will be a full varsity game played under normal rules, including live kicks and returns. These two teams met at Springstead last spring, with the Eagles winning, 28-13.
“We’re hoping to come out healthy,” Garofano said. “We’ve been butting heads against each other for weeks now so we’re looking to go against someone in an opposite uniform.”
Weeki Wachee at Gulf, 7 p.m.
Weeki Wachee will be preparing for its third year on the varsity level, coming off back-to-back 3-7 seasons.
The Hornets meet Gulf for an exhibition Thursday night for the second year in a row, a rematch of last spring’s wild 50-49 overtime victory for Weeki Wachee.
“Offensively they did a lot. They scored 49 points on us,” Weeki Wachee head coach Mark Lee said. “They ran the ball very well against us last year and this year I’m sure they want to do the same thing. Defensively we need to do a lot better, make sure we read our keys and do our assignments a lot better. Hopefully we can stop them this time.
“I’ll take the win, but I’d rather not have to score 50 to win by one.”
The Hornets find themselves in a bit of a rebuilding mode, with a brand new quarterback in freshman Alec Cromie.
“We’ve got a lot of inexperience,” Lee said. “But we’ve had some guys step up to take a leadership role. We’ve gotten a lot better from Day 1 to now, so we’re looking to see how we play against Gulf.
“Offensively the biggest thing we’re working on is finishing. We had games last year where we were leading at the half and just didn’t close the game out.
“We’re working on finishing and defensively we’ve preached getting to the ball and making tackles. It’s a work in progress. We’re so inexperienced with what we have. We’ve got to get them experience with repetition and make improvements from there.”
Lee said Cromie’s confidence continues to rise, and he’s got a couple of weapons in wide receiver Dayonta Patterson, an All-County selection as a junior with 29 catches for 344 yards and a touchdown, as well as slotback Shawn O’Gorman.
Gulf went 1-9 last year under first-year head coach Jason Messamore, who took over a Buccaneers squad that went 0-10 in 2012.
This will be a full varsity contest, but won’t employ live specials teams.
“If we play well, do our assignments, not turn the ball over and make big plays on defense; that would be extremely good for us. Any coach agrees with that,” Lee said. “We need to take what they give us and not force things. That’s probably the biggest thing we’re looking for and hopefully we come out with a win.”