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Saturday, Mar 28, 2015

D-line out to prove win was "no fluke"

Hernando Today correspondent


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In sports, detractors and naysayers are as commonplace as having Folgers coffee during breakfast.

This past weekend at the Weeki Wachee Duals, besides the competition on the wrestling mats, the main topic of discussion among Citrus County student/athletes was last Friday's clash between Citrus High and Springstead at Booster Stadium.

Paraphrasing the sampling, Citrus football players told their friends the previous night's 21-6 Eagle win was a fluke; that they were flat.

"I was here last Friday and it wasn't a fluke," countered the Eagles' defensive line mentor Frank Hynes. "The thing was we came to play. Citrus came in here hooting and hollering. I expected us to play to our potential and we did. The key to the game was we established the line of scrimmage - not the other way around."

The architect of SHS' 3-5 defense is head coach Mike Garofano.

Garofano has paid his dues. He dutifully served as the Eagles' defensive coordinator for more than a decade under Springstead skipper Bill Vonada.

This Eagle defense is not playing at the record pace of the 1989 Tiger Bowl championship team under Bill Browning. Browning's stout unit surrendered a school-record low 84 points in 11 games, allowing a school-record low 7.64 points per game.

In 11 games under Browning, SHS' crew permitted 11 touchdowns. Upon closer inspection, it was only nine touchdowns. Two arrived via special team's gaffes - one on a blocked kick returned for a score and another on a punt return for a score.

Interestingly, the current Spring Hill defense ranks tied seventh in school history as the best along with the 1996 district championship team under Pat McCoy.

Entering today's Class 6A, Region II semifinal at home against 9-2 Gainesville, both the 1996 squad and this year's units are allowing 12.1 points per game.

Many fans and pundits have pointed out that the key to the Eagle defense begins in the trenches behind its three returning starters from last year's district championship team: nose guard Jesse Cowan, and tackles Shane Wiggins and Travis O'Neil.

SHS' backups include: senior Jarren Jones, juniors Eric Stevens, Nathan Kocolowski and Chase Laviolette, and frosh Jacob Bowman.

That fired-up D-line unit helped handcuff a 'Cane offense that arrived scoring over 36 points per and averaging 390 offensive yards to zero offensive points and a net of 141 yards.

The Gainesville Hurricanes, under skipper Mark Latsko, formerly the Hernando High defensive coordinator, arrives with glossy numbers.

Despite graduating 25 lettermen and 19 starters, the defending 6A state runners-up are averaging 250 offensive yards per game, including over 177 yards via the rush.

This year's 'Ground and Pound 'Canes' have replaced the pass-happy fellas that handed the Eagles three losses in their three previous meetings over the past four years.

The Alachua County team's bread 'n butter is handing the ball off to talented senior Tony James.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound James can scoot. He's rushed for 1,242 yards on 173 carries - for a gaudy 7.18 yards per carry and a team-best nine touchdowns.

As a one-dimensional offense, GHS has rushed the football 71 percent of the time with James accounting for nearly 64 percent of the 'Canes' rushing total.

GHS swoops into town averaging 23.7 points per game.

The Eagles' 6-foot, 230-pound fireplug Cowan recalls the 2010 season when "Gainesville destroyed our seniors (17-7 and 30-7; in 2009 GHS won 45-13)."

The 17-year-old Cowan is a two-time weightlifting state qualifier who has totaled 80 tackles, including 22 solos with eight tackles for a loss and four sacks.

"The key on Friday is to continue working as a team and controlling the line of scrimmage," offered the All-County selection in football and weightlifting.

Cowan's game has demanded consistent double-team attention from opposing O-line's all season. When that happens, guys like Wiggins, O'Neil and the fast-flowing Eagle linebacking crew has taken advantage to make plays.

"We'll do whatever needs to be done," admitted the 6-foot, 205-pound Wiggins, who has collected 63 tackles featuring three for a loss, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. "We need to come in ready to fight and play a 48-minute game.

"Last week's game gave us a great taste in our mouths, but it never satisfies," added the 18-year-old Wiggins. "If some people think last week's game was a fluke, they're about to see another."

The athletically gifted O'Neil has slowly emerged from the shadows created by Cowan and Wiggins. At 6-foot-1, and 210-pounds, O'Neil has made his presence felt with 60 tackles including four for a loss and four sacks.

Only the Eagles' sidelined middle linebacker Conor Ross with six sacks has more.

"Watch my game, I can be a leader, too," said the 17-year-old O'Neil, who was an All-County wrestler last winter in his first season on the mats under skipper Sal Basile. "My responsibilities are to control my side and make sure no one gets outside."

On the suggestion that last week's playoff win over Citrus was a fluke, O'Neil said, "Folks better come out and see for themselves. This team is for real."

The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Jones is an imposing physical specimen in his first year at the varsity level.

He's looked at by Coach Hynes as the Eagles' first backup to enter the game to give a blow to either Cowan, Wiggins or O'Neil.

"Those three guys have done a great job," explained the 17-year-old Jones, who has totaled 12 tackles, including one sack. "Those guys set the tempo. Their job is to stuff the line, maintain the edge and hit the guy across from them in the mouth."

Jones says of the Eagles' regional semifinal, "Everything is personal from here on out," he said. "The further we go, the more we shine. I love these brothers."

The 5-foot-10, 182-pound Kocolowski has seen limited action across the D-line and on special teams. He's totaled 17 tackles and has recovered a fumble.

More than anything, he's patiently waiting his turn to start.

"These guys are good, I should know, because I play behind them," noted the 16-year-old Kocolowski. "When I get in, I do whatever I can. I practice as hard as I can to help prepare our guys for Friday nights."

On the Eagles' attempt to become the first Hernando County team to reach the third round of the football playoffs as well as becoming the first-ever county team to win 11 games, "We've made history all season," he said. "We can make even more. The key is dominating the line of scrimmage."

The Eagles' D-line understudies have plenty to add.

"I look up to the guys in front of me as older brothers," detailed the 17-year-old Stevens. "My dream (of reaching states) hasn't started."

"It's my advantage to learn as much as I can from these guys," described the 17-year-old Laviolette. "We've got some pretty good talent up front. Those guys have done an amazing job controlling the line and finding the football.

"At school, it's starting to get crazy. The further we go, the more momentum we continue to build," he added. "More and more people are showing up at our games."

"I hope I have the potential to do great things like the guys in front of me," pointed out Bowman. "Just like last week, we've got to dominate the run game, control the line and cause turnovers."

On Friday's biggest challenge, "Their back (James) has committed to Oregon and their O-line is well-coached. Their whole team is excellent," stressed Coach Hynes, "Otherwise, they wouldn't be here either.

"To me, it boils down to senior leadership. Last time we played those guys, we didn't have the 20-plus seniors we have now, who have all bought in," he said. "There are no individuals here. It's all about playing as a team.

"We're selling this game one way: not to leave Booster Stadium with any regrets. If we leave with regrets, the scoreboard will show it."

By the numbers: Hernando County's 10-win football teams

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO


Hernando 1949 10-0 Tom Varn

Hernando 1980 10-1 Dub Palmer

Hernando 1981 10-2 Dub Palmer

Hernando Christian Academy 2008 10-0 Pastor David Raley

Springstead 2013 10-1 Mike Garofano

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