SPRING HILL - Three years ago prior to veteran skipper Joe Nicolai arriving out of retirement, Springstead's boys tennis program was basically used as a foot mat by opposing teams.
Nicolai, who was the architect of Central High's ultra-successful girls tennis program (six district titles, two runner-up trophies in nine years) guided the Eagles to a district runner-up trophy in 2012.
Last season, SHS continued its climb by adding the school's first-ever district championship in the sport.
This season, not only did the Mariner Boulevard netters claim a piece of the Hernando County title, but added the school's first-ever district repeat in the rugged 3A-5 Tourney at Lecanto.
On Thursday, after an arduous 4:46 duel against Ocala-Forest, the Spring Hill netters added their first-ever regional title, edging the pesky Wildcats in the Class 3A, Region III final at Delta Woods Park, 4-3.
Last season, it was the Wildcats (9-5), who eliminated SHS (14-1) in a little over five hours in a regional semifinal at Delta Woods.
In the process, the 3A-5 and 3A-III champion Eagles will send their entire team to the 92nd Class 3A state finals beginning Tuesday at Sanlando Park in Altamonte Springs.
In an intensely fought match, fifth-year Wildcat mentor David Falcone tipped his hat to players on both sides.
"I'm proud of our team," explained Falcone. "We fought tooth and nail for every point. A couple of balls that were out by inches made a difference.
"That No. 4 singles match (2:55 match captured in three sets by SHS' talented frosh Alex Hoover) was huge," added Falcone. "At the end, we were spent. Fans got to see two great teams play. If these two teams played 10 times, I'd say we'd split with them."
Stamina, according to Falcone, may have ultimately been the difference.
"The difference? I think they (Springstead) was in a little better shape than we were," he said. "I think they had a little more gas left in the tank."
From the home sideline, Nicolai, in turn, praised his troops.
"This (regional championship) is fabulous," explained Nicolai, who improved to 147-35 in his 12th lifetime season. "It means so much being the first Springstead team to ever reach states. This run started three years ago and it culminated tonight. This is great for the boys, they've earned this.
"I have to admit I was apprehensive at the start of the season wading into such uncharted waters. We played in a real tough district just to get here," he added. "Look, every time we play one of those Ocala programs, we get a great match like this. Tonight was no different than last year. I'm ecstatic with the results."
In this season's regular-season matchup in Marion County on Feb. 27, SHS locked up the match winning four of five singles matches.
That wasn't the case in Round 2.
The host Eagles captured the No. 1-2 singles matches before Forest claimed victories at No. 3 and No. 5.
For Springstead, junior Patrick Deslaurier (14-6) set the tone early by defeating Forest senior Philip Libby (8-4) in 74 minutes at No. 1, 6-3, 6-4.
In the school's earlier match, Deslaurier needed three sets to stave off Libby, 6-1, 1-6, 6-2.
Libby had defeated Deslaurier last spring at Delta Woods.
"I remember losing to Philip in regionals last year," said the 17-year-old Deslaurier. "But today was huge. Obviously, we needed to win as many matches as we can. I was down early but during a changeover, my brother told me that we really needed my match.
"I played really well," added Deslaurier. "I played much better than I did yesterday (losing during the regional semifinal). I was just outclassed by the Edgewater kid. A win like this really boosts my confidence."
At No. 2 singles, Patrick's brother, Hank Deslaurier (15-2), followed up with a solid 7-5, 6-2 nod over Wildcat senior Nick Wigelsworth (5-7).
Like his brother, Deslaurier had solved Wigelsworth in the first meeting in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4.
"Today, I thought I played well," said the 18-year-old Deslaurier. "I really worked at keeping my shots in. I tried to stay away from over-hitting the ball.
"I've never won a regional; this is crazy. I want to go to states so bad," added Deslaurier, the school record-holder in all-time singles and doubles victories.
"My opponent played a great match, too," pointed out Deslaurier. "He played a lot better today than he did at districts. I really thought he was going to win that first set. He's got an amazing serve."
Forest bounced back to tie matters at 2-all as junior Aaron Darden (11-1) nipped SHS frosh Sam DeAngelis at No. 5 in three sets, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1, before senior Austin Darden (12-0) solved junior Robbie Hoover at No. 3, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1.
At No. 4, Alex Hoover (18-0) needed nearly three hours to edge Forest senior Grant Lovell (7-5), 6-1, 4-6, 6-1.
The win was Hoover's second this season over Lovell.
"He played me much better this time," assessed the 14-year-old Hoover. "He played really well in the first set and I did the same in the second. This win was huge because now we're a win away from states."
Hoover's clutch come-from-behind win gave the hosts a much-needed 3-2 edge leading into doubles.
The lead, however, lasted 58 minutes. That's how long it took before Libby/Austin Darden (12-0) swept Patrick Deslaurier and Robbie Hoover (7-8) at No. 1 doubles, 6-1, 6-4.
In the deciding No. 2 doubles match, Hank Deslaurier and Alex Hoover (16-0) not only remained unbeaten but eliminated Forest's Wigelsworth/Lovell (8-4) in 71 minutes, 6-3, 6-4.
"This is so big," pointed out the unflappable Alex Hoover. "It's like a dream come true. To me, this was my most important match of the year. I'm glad I made it through. I started cramping near the end of the match."
"Right now, this is pretty crazy," said Hank Deslaurier. "We've been working at this goal for three years. It's pretty crazy to finally make it. As a senior, winning districts twice was pretty good stuff, but winning regionals for the first time in school history makes this experience so worthwhile."
Springstead 4, Ocala-Forest 3
No. 1 - Patrick Deslaurier (SPG) def. Philip Libby, 6-3, 6-4.
No. 2 - Hank Deslaurier (SPG) def. Nick Wigelsworth, 7-5, 6-2.
No. 3 - Austin Darden (OF) def. Robbie Hoover, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1.
No. 4 - Alex Hoover (SPG) def. Grant Lovell, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5.
No. 5 - Aaron Darden (OF) def. Sam DeAngelis, 6-1, 4-6, 6-1.
No. 1 - Libby/Austin Darden (OF) def. P. Deslaurier/R. Hoover, 6-1, 6-4.
No. 2 - H. Deslaurier/A. Hoover (SPG) def. Wigelsworth/Lovell, 6-3, 6-4.
Records - Ocala-Forest (9-5), Springstead (14-1).