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Monday, Mar 02, 2015

Springstead faced with historic opportunity


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When Springstead takes the field today, it will mark just the fourth time the Eagles will compete on the regional level.

Their previous appearances, in 1996, 2010 and 2011, all had one common theme: one-and-done.

In the past the Eagles have had the misfortune of tangling with Hillsborough County-based squads Seffner-Armwood (twice) and Plant City-Durant, teams that each went on to make at least the regional finals.

This season, though, Springstead (16-8) faces a considerably different situation as it hosts a Class 6A, Region II quarterfinal against Gainesville (9-18) at 7 p.m.

Based purely on overall records, the Eagles would seem like a clear favorite.

“I think we’re well-prepared,” Springstead head coach Jim Diven said. “Everybody is on board. I think we have actually come together as a team, more so now than the rest of the season. I feel like we’re peaking right now. We’ve had a couple good practices the last few days and I think we’re ready to play.

“No team in Springstead history has ever won a regional game, and these boys want to go do it.”

For all the elation the Eagles exuded celebrating their 6A-District 6 championship last Thursday, they endured a rollercoaster ride before it.

The finest stretch the program has experienced, featuring those back-to-back regional trips and a district title in 2011, was interrupted by Frank Vitale’s abrupt dismissal as head coach in the middle of last season.

It was an administrative decision that proved unpopular with at least some people close to the team, and it showed on the field. The Eagles started 8-1 under Vitale, but finished 13-9 with a loss in the district semifinals.

Diven, whose two sons had recently played for Springstead, was hired last summer and the transition hasn’t always gone smoothly.

To that end, the Eagles have dropped six games to clubs that ended up with losing marks – Bishop McLaughlin, Central (twice), Crystal River, Lecanto and Nature Coast.

Conversely, they’ve beaten current regional participants Hernando, Land O’ Lakes and South Sumter.

That trend may not bode well facing an opponent that has twice as many defeats as victories.

“These are the kind of teams we lose to,” Diven said. “Their record isn’t that great, but here they are playing in the regional playoffs. So that means they had to beat somebody. That means they’ve got somebody who can pitch and I’m sure we’ll see him.

“If we come out and take them lightly, we’ll get beat. But I don’t think we’ll take anybody lightly.”

Diven believes his crew has outgrown playing down to the competition, evidenced by the way Springstead handled a pair of sub-.500 foes in the 6A-6 Tournament, downing Central and Citrus by a combined 20-3.

Gainesville does have a respectable recent history. The Hurricanes are in regionals for the eighth time in the past 12 seasons, having gone to at least the Sweet 16 four times from 2006-11 and the Elite Eight in 2008.

But over the last two years, they’re a combined 19-34. They still managed to advance out of the 6A-5 Tournament by bouncing Ocala-Vanguard (11-15) in the semis, 8-2, before falling to Ocala-Lake Weir (15-12) in the final, 8-6.

On paper, the ‘Canes have struggled offensively. Prior to the district championship tilt, they were hitting .235 with only one home run all season. They’ve been outscored 129-210.

When they do get on base, though, they’ve made things happen. One stat that caught Diven’s eye was Gainesville’s staggering 66 stolen bases in 70 attempts, led by Case Harrison’s perfect 20-of-20 slate.

Two pitchers, senior Jacob Reimer (5-4, 2.80 earned run average) and junior Will Whitlock (3-2, 3.12), have thrown the bulk of the innings. Reimer started and got the win against Vanguard.

Senior right-hander Brandon Brosher (4-2, 1.67) will take the ball for Springstead tonight, Diven said.

He’s fresh off a complete-game effort in a 6-1 win over Citrus in the 6A-6 finale.

“Springstead has never won a regional game before,” Brosher said afterward. “But now that’s our goal. We think that we have a chance to win a couple games in the region.”

That’s certainly not unrealistic. The reigning region champ, Melbourne, looms on the other side of the bracket at a spotless 25-0. Fortunately for the Eagles, they won’t have to worry about that potential matchup for a few rounds.

Whoever wins today will face either Citrus or Lake Weir in the semifinals on Tuesday. Regardless of the opponent, Springstead would again play host.

In other words, things are lining up for the Eagles to soar to unprecedented heights.

“We do think it’s a major opportunity to do exactly that,” Diven said. “The key is to keep them off the bases. But if the pitching is good and the defense is solid like it has been the last couple of games, we can compete with anybody.”

At a Glance

What – Class 6A, Region II quarterfinal

Who – Gainesville Hurricanes (9-18, 6A-5 runners-up) at Springstead Eagles (16-8, 6A-6 champions)

Where – Springstead baseball field

When – Today at 7 p.m.

At Stake – Winner advances to Tuesday’s semifinal against winner of Citrus/Ocala-Lake Weir. Springstead would host regardless of opponent.

(352) 544-5288

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