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Tuesday, Mar 31, 2015

Eagles enter uncharted territory


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Black Friday is a day for shopping, leftovers, maybe even putting up decorations and starting the countdown to Christmas.

But in Hernando County, it's not supposed to be a day for football.

Around these parts, the helmets, shoulder pads and uniforms are usually tucked away by now, as teams begin in earnest their preparation for the next season.

This year, though, Springstead has gone off script. Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror, yet the Eagles are not.

The first county crew to ever advance to a third playoff round, they'll make the trip to Hillsborough County tonight to take on Seffner-Armwood in the Class 6A, Region II final at 7:30 p.m.

"There's a good buzz. Everyone is excited about being in the third round," Springstead head coach Mike Garofano said. "But we're not satisfied with being there. We want to do well and we want to win.

"Our plan all season long was to put Springstead football and Spring Hill on the map. That's what we're here to do. We're here to take on Hillsborough County."

Over the past two weeks, the Eagles (11-1) have already defeated the team that beat them earlier in the season (Citrus, 21-6) and an opponent no one from the county had ever solved (Gainesville, 27-7).

Now they'll battle one of the state's most successful programs over the past 11 seasons, and the second-ranked team in 6A.

For the Hawks (12-0), this is nothing new. This is the 12th time since 2000 that they've made it to a regional final, and they're 8-3 on the field in this round over that span.

They won their first state championship in 2003, and they'll honor that team at halftime tonight. They repeated in 2004 and were state runners-up in 2005.

In 2010-11, they again made the state title game, winning it all in 2011. However, they later forfeited both those seasons due to an ineligible player.

Nevertheless, this is the 11th year in a row they're still alive at this point, sitting three wins away from adding another state crown.

"We're excited," said Sean Callahan, Armwood's head coach since 1990. "We're a young group. There's an awful lot of learning here. We're seeing improvement as a staff, especially on the offensive side. It all bodes well. We're expecting to play a good game Friday night. We'll see how that goes."

Still smarting from the FHSAA probe that led to those lost seasons, the Hawks had a down year by their lofty standards in 2012, going 9-4 and getting pummeled by Gainesville in the regional finals, 42-10.

Yes, that would be the same Gainesville Springstead just handled - sort of. Keep in mind, the Hurricanes graduated 19 starters from last season and were without Oregon-committed running back Tony James, recouping from a concussion.

That didn't stop Callahan from using that as motivation for his players.

"This is a group that last year, we got beat up by Gainesville," Callahan said. "We're used to being the physical team. Last year when we left Gainesville, we left three guys in the hospital. I showed our kids on film Springstead beating Gainesville to make the point that obviously Springstead is that good.

"They're hungry. They want to win it. There's a lot of pressure these kids put on themselves."

The graduation of three D-I signees, Darryl Richardson (San Diego State), Leon McQuay III (Southern California) and Alvin Bailey (University of Florida) stripped the Hawks of significant firepower.

Plus a new nine-team district - 6A-8 - severely hampered Armwood's strength of schedule. By the end of September the Hawks had already taken care of their two biggest challengers, Hillsborough and Tampa-Jefferson.

In the regular season, Armwood outscored its opponents by an astounding 401-42 and never yielded double figures in any game.

The playoffs have been a slightly different story, though the end result hasn't changed. The Hawks beat Venice, 31-19, then survived a shootout in a rematch with Jefferson, 52-48.

"I think we've really hung our hats on defense and being physical, and running to the ball," Callahan said. "That's who we are, we always have been. The offense is always a work in progress for us."

Senior safety Kyle Gibson is committed to Vanderbilt, and has 46 tackles and four interceptions.

Junior Bryon Cowart, 6-foot-3, 248 pounds, is a four-star recruit garnering the attention of top D-I schools, behind 62 tackles and 12 sacks.

Inside linebacker Jordan Griffin (110 tackles, four sacks) and cornerback Aaron Covington (28 tackles, three interceptions), both juniors, have also received D-I offers.

On offense, the statistical leader is clear: junior quarterback Noah Johnson. He has completed 101-of-167 passes for 1,637 yards, with 13 touchdowns against six picks.

Plus he paces the Hawks in rushing, carrying the ball 108 times for 703 yards and 12 scores.

"The last 5-7 games he's been great," Callahan said. "He's not the tallest guy (6-foot). He really, really wants to be great and wants to be a leader. It's important to him, and when that's something that's important to the kid, it makes my job a lot easier."


So the big question is, can the Eagles hang with the vaunted Hawks?

"Armwood has like 12 seniors. I know they're in this position every year. But we tell our kids it's just another football game," Garofano said. "We play and prepare for each game the same. They're all big in our book.

"I know they're big, athletic, fast, strong; they've got it all. But I like our chances. I like our team. I like the way we execute. We'll play Springstead football like we have the first two rounds of the playoffs."

Garofano noted that the Eagles' veer-option style offense can often neutralize opposing talent, allowing them to hold on to the football and dictate the flow of the game.

Ironically, Armwood used to employ the veer option, Callahan estimated from 1995 to about 2008. Early on in that timeframe, these squads had their only prior meeting, in the first round of the 1996 playoffs, a 24-7 Armwood win at Booster Stadium.

But these days, the Hawks don't see much veer at all.

"Last week we had to rush up the field and get after an elusive quarterback who could run and throw," Callahan said. "The week before we had to defend against a running back who had rushed for over 1,500 yards. Each week it's a different thing we have to teach our kids.

"I think they're going to have some success on us, because we try to give our kids a full picture during the week, but we're still not Springstead when it comes running the veer."

Defensively, the Eagles are now down their top two tacklers - linebackers Conor Ross and Juan Espinosa - due to season-ending knee injuries. Espinosa was carted off last week with a severe dislocation that required surgery. Ross has missed the last three games with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Even with those combined 214 tackles out of action, the Eagle defense hasn't shown any signs of slippage. Senior Austin Stock has capably filled in for Ross, and All-County senior nose guard Jesse Cowan successfully shifted to linebacker after Espinosa's departure.

"I expect other guys to step in and not miss a beat," said Garofano, the former defensive coordinator who still runs that unit. "We need people to step up and I think the guys behind them are capable of doing the same things Conor and Juan did."

Junior running back Daniel Wright showed no ill effects from his knee injury suffered against Citrus, rushing for 164 yards and scoring two touchdowns against Gainesville.

Wright and senior quarterback Tyler Mahla are now both over 1,100 yards on the ground and have scored a combined 29 touchdowns.

That duo will almost assuredly play a pivotal role if the Eagles are to pull off what would be looked at around the state as a major upset.

"We're not intimidated," Garofano said. "It doesn't matter how big or fast they are or how hostile the environment is, we'll continue to play team football."

What the coach made it clear was the Eagles aren't ready to call it a season yet, no matter the odds potentially stacked against them.

In this county only Hernando High in 1967 and 1981, in shorter playoff formats, were among the final eight in their classification. Neither of those teams went any further.

With that in mind, Springstead knows what a victory would mean in the scope of local football history.

"The school hasn't been in this position in 38 years of existence," Garofano said. "We've got to take advantage. You don't know when this will happen again. Not just at Springstead, in the county you don't know when this will happen again.

"The seniors don't want to stop playing. 'Let's keep going,' that's our mantra. 'One more game, one more; just keep going.' We'll try to win that one so we can get one more game."

This game will be carried live on WWJB 1450 AM, WXJB 99.9 FM and 103.9 FM, and streamed live at, beginning with the pregame show at 6:45 p.m.

(352) 544-5288

At a Glance

What - Class 6A, Region II football final

Who - Springstead Eagles (11-1, 6A-6 champions) at No. 2 Seffner-Armwood Hawks (12-0, 6A-8 champions)

Where - Lyle Flagg Field, 12000 U.S. Highway 92, Seffner

When - Kickoff set for 7:30 p.m.

At Stake - Winner will host the survivor of Fort Walton Beach-Choctawhatchee at St. Johns-Bartram Trail in state semifinal final next Friday.

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