SPRING HILL - Coming into Friday's pivotal Class 6A, District 6 opener, veteran Sunlake skipper Bill Browning had guided his prep teams through 242 games in his 24 seasons.
On the home side of Booster Stadium, Springstead's eighth head coach across 38 seasons, Mike Garofano, was described by Browning as, "One of the best players to ever play for me."
By contrast, Garofano's coaching resume countered with three games.
Browning's crew appeared poised to grab the inside lane of 6A-6 race behind a pair of junior placekicker Chris Wilkinson field goals (37, 34 yards) sandwiched around a 5-yard touchdown run by junior tailback Nathan Johnson.
Johnson led all rushers with 119 yards and his team-leading fourth touchdown of the season while the visiting Seahawks extended their shutout skein to 13 quarters - or since Pasco's Malik Johns scored on a 95-yard kickoff return in the first quarter of Week 1.
But the pupil (Garofano) solved the mentor (Browning) as Eagle senior quarterback Tyler Mahla engineered two long second-half touchdown drives covering 70 and 80 yards, as Springstead snapped Sunlake's seven-game win skein dating back to last fall, 14-13.
The win over the Seahawks (3-1 overall, 0-1 6A-6) served as Springstead's (3-1 overall, 1-0 6A-6) sixth straight in a home opener.
The brisk game was completed in 2:06, as only seven penalties were accepted while only two turnovers (one lost fumble by each team) affected play.
"We made great halftime adjustments," explained Garofano. "We had to, Sunlake is so well-coached. Coach Browning isn't the longest-tenured coach in the (North) Suncoast for no reason. He was my mentor. He's the reason why I decided to be a coach.
"Give credit to Sunlake; those guys play hard every snap. But so did our guys. A lot was riding on this game. I think holding them to a field goal down 10-0 really saved us," detailed Garofano. "And that first-half goal-line stand where they failed to score was huge."
On the Eagle heroes, "There were so many to count," noted Garofano. "Coach (Dustin) Kupcik deserves credit for calling some big plays, including the flea flicker and the slant for a touchdown. . I thought defensively, Conor (Ross) was an animal. He stuck his nose into play after play.
"And kudos to Tyler (Mahla). He imposed his will with our offense."
On the game's significance, "This was a money game, that's how we sold it," described Garofano. "This (district) isn't over. But getting this one definitely helps a lot."
The Land O' Lakes crew led 3-0 at the intermission thanks to Wilkinson, who replaced the preferred University of Florida walk-on Connor Gilboy, the kicker of a year ago.
Wilkinson, who had connected on 2-of-3 field goals coming in, converted his 37-yarder with 1:07 left to cap a 10-play, 54-yard scoring drive. On the drive, Johnson acted as a sledgehammer with six carries for 49 yards.
To open the second half, Browning's crew traversed 60 yards in 13 plays across 6:15 as Johnson scooted around right end for his team's eighth touchdown. Johnson bulldozed the way to pay dirt with eight carries for 34 yards.
Wilkinson's fourth point-after kick in four tries upped the ante to 10-0 with 5:45 left in the third quarter.
On the next offensive snap, Springstead junior fullback Daniel Wright lost the handle in traffic as Seahawk middle linebacker Austin Yeloushan recovered.
After the Hawks garnered eight yards on three plays, Wilkinson trotted out and buried his second field goal with 3:37 showing, 13-0.
At this point, Mahla took control. This was the same option quarterback who was limited to one yard on six carries in the first half
In the ensuing nine-play drive, he clicked on his only pass, a 20-yard screen to senior Kevin Bedford, and carried the ball on six of the next seven snaps for 41 yards.
On second-and-goal from the Seahawk 3, Wright scored his first touchdown of the season.
Senior placekicker Tyler Toth followed with a perfect PAT with 38.8 seconds left in the third quarter, 13-7.
The teams traded punts before Wilkinson lined up for what should have been the dagger - a 32-yard field goal. Instead, he hooked the kick.
Starting from the Eagle 20, Mahla called his own number three times for 11 hard-earned yards.
That's when Garofano rolled the dice. Offensive coordinator Kupcik called for a flea flicker as Mahla pitched the ball to senior wide receiver Joe Jeffords.
Jeffords, the team's backup quarterback, launched a 50-yard strike to senior tight end Tyler Anderson to the Sunlake 19.
Mahla carried four consecutive times including on fourth-and-two from the 11 for a first down at the Seahawk 9.
On the next snap, Mahla hit a quick slant to a wide-open Bedford for his first touchdown pass of the season.
Mahla, who came into the game with 2,031 career passing yards, clicked on his 14th career touchdown pass to knot the score. Mahla finished 5-of-8 passing for 61 yards besides rushing for 60 yards on 22 attempts.
Toth, who entered the game with a Hernando County-best 7-of-7 in PATs, untied the game with his second of the game with 48.2 seconds remaining.
Three snaps later, Sunlake junior quarterback Dayton Feiden slipped to the turf untouched on a center snap, dropping Browning to 5-6 lifetime against Springstead.
From the Springstead locker room, right guard Jamison Peppe may have best summed up the Eagles' efforts.
"Even though we were down 13-0, we started capitalizing and executing much better. That first touchdown helped get our mood up," described the 17-year-old Peppe.
On the key to the game, "We never got down and that trick play finished it," said Peppe.
On the game's importance, "This is the biggest win of the season, especially coming back from 13-0," he said. "This will put us in the playoffs."
"Defensively, we all wanted to leave it on the field," insisted the 16-year-old Ross, who was in on a half-dozen solo tackles. "Robert (Holdway) and Jesse (Cowan) saved us on that goal-line stand in the first half."
On the game's dagger, "That flea flicker was a clutch call. Even if Joe throws a perfect pass, Tyler (Anderson) had to catch the ball. To me, that was the game-winner."
Jeffords explained, "We practiced that play all week. The coaches did a great job of setting up Sunlake for that play and then we executed it perfectly.
"I was just hoping Tyler would get deep enough and I'd lob it up there so he could get underneath it," recalled the 17-year-old Jeffords. "The biggest credit belongs to our O-line for giving us that much time to run that play."
On how Jeffords would described the Eagles' efforts, "We were resilient. Even though we were down 13-0, no one was bailing. We're a second-half team; all we had to do was keep our heads up.
"A win like this means so much," added Jeffords. "Sunlake is big team and they battled all night. In the end, we came together. Our defense deserves a lot of credit; they had the offense's back all night."
Springstead 14, Sunlake 13
SNL - Wilkinson 37 field goal.
SNL - Johnson 5 run (Wilkinson kick).
SNL - Wilkinson 34 field goal.
SPG - Wright 3 run (T. Toth kick).
SPG - Bedford 9 pass from Mahla (T. Toth kick).
Atts./Rushing Yds. 46-169 38-97
Comp./Pass Atts./Int. 5-6-0 6-9-0
Total Offense 52-225 47-208