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Friday, Feb 27, 2015

Familiar face in way of further history


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A year ago, Mark Latsko and Mike Garofano were two top defensive coordinators, rising stars in the coaching ranks of Hernando County.

Tonight they'll pace opposite sidelines, as they have several times before, this time guiding their respective crews in a do-or-die situation.

Garofano's Springstead (10-1) squad hosts Gainesville (9-2) in a Class 6A, Region II semifinal at 7:30 p.m., as Latsko returns to the area he called home the previous five school years.

"It feels good to be here in the second round of the playoffs and we're the only show in town on the North Suncoast," Garofano said. "All eyes are on us right now. We're looking forward to Gainesville coming in."

The Eagles (10-1) have already made a serious assault on their own record book, setting a new school mark and tying the county record for wins with their first-ever home postseason victory, a 21-6 dusting of Citrus last Friday.

That was their 10th consecutive triumph - another school record - on the heels of becoming the county's first repeat district champions.

They're already in rarified air on the local level. In the current five-tier playoff format adopted in 1993, only five county clubs have made the second round, with the Eagles accounting for the previous two times in 2004 and 2010.

While Hernando High was among the final eight in its classification in 1967 and 1981, no team from the county has ever advanced to a third postseason round.

"That's what we're shooting for right now," Garofano said. "We keep saying we want one more game, one more game. This senior class is leaving a legacy, and we want to make the third round. That'd be nice."

A golden opportunity

In their prior forays to this point, the Eagles were realistically underdogs, falling to Lakeland-Lake Gibson in 2004, 39-21, and Gainesville three years ago, 30-7.

Lake Gibson, led by future USF quarterback Matt Grothe, was en route to its second straight trip to the state championship game.

Back in 2010, Gainesville went on to the state semifinals. The Hurricanes have made the playoffs each of the past five seasons and have reached as far as the regional semifinals every time.

A year ago they went to the 6A state title game and lost to Miami Central, 37-14.

Over the last three seasons, Gainesville has defeated a Hernando County team in postseason action, taking down Hernando High in 2011 (20-14) and 2012 (60-3).

Additionally, from 2009-10 the 'Canes were in the same district as both Springstead and Central.

Overall, Gainesville has gone 7-0 against local squads since 2009, outscoring them by a combined 319-44.

Still, the 'Canes needed a shocking last-minute touchdown to knock off the Leopards two years ago. So they have shown some vulnerability.

Ironically, that night in Brooksville the normally high-powered Gainesville attack was mostly shut down by Latsko's defensive unit.

A former player for the Hurricanes, Latsko spent five years at Hernando, initially hired as head boys basketball coach.

He also had stints as boys weightlifting coach, boys tennis coach and co-athletic director, and became defensive coordinator in 2009.

When the top job with the 'Canes opened up, though, he couldn't pass up what he called a dream job.

"It's been great," Latsko said. "Anytime you have a chance to come home you've got to jump at the opportunity. I enjoyed my time in Hernando County, but it was time for me to move on."

Latsko inherited a team that graduated 25 seniors. The lone returnee on the starting defense, senior Juan Jenkins, shifted from safety to linebacker. Senior tight end Nick McGriff and senior tackle Byers Hickman were the only starters back on offense.

While Latsko retained the same defensive coaching staff under previous headman James Thomson, he took over on the offensive side.

"It's been a process," Latsko said. "We've had some good games and then some games where we were fortunate enough to come away with 'Ws.' We're excited to be in the second round. We're excited to be playing a very good Springstead team."

The 'Canes started off with a 49-7 loss at Lake City-Columbia, a team that finished ranked sixth in the final Associated Press 6A state poll.

They then rattled off eight wins in a row, including a 38-16 victory over Citrus to clinch the 6A-District 5 crown on Oct. 25.

Gainesville suffered a 31-18 loss to Crawfordville-Wakulla to close out the regular season. That knocked the 'Canes out of the top 10 in the final AP poll, though they still received four votes.

Then they squeaked out a dramatic 17-14 win over Sunlake last week. The visiting Seahawks had gone ahead 14-7 with 1:37 to play, only to get hit with two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties leading to a short kickoff.

Tony James returned that kick 64 yards for a game-tying score, and after a blocked punt Alex Holloway connected on a 42-yard field goal with 8.8 seconds left.

"These players here at Gainesville High School are used to winning in the playoffs and winning multiple games in the playoffs," Latsko said. "Nobody hung their heads and everybody knew we'd have an opportunity to at least tie the game, and we ended up winning in regulation."

James, a speedy 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior committed to Oregon, rushed 19 times for 123 yards, and has 1,242 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground this season.

Though the 'Canes have thrown for 13 scores, Latsko admitted this version of Gainesville, paced by James, is more run-oriented than its dynamic predecessors.

A Springstead defense that yielded zero offensive points against a Citrus team that averaged 36.2 points in the regular season will surely keep an eye on James.

Garofano said the Eagles will "try to suffocate (James), not give him anywhere to run." But that won't be a simple task due to the 'Canes multiple weapons.

"They're balanced offensively. They can throw it, they can run it," Garofano said. "They have a Division I running back that's a home run hitter. He can take you to the house on any play. We've got to contain and control him.

"They have more talent offensively than we've faced all year, and more speed. So we've got to get used to that speed and adjust to it."

Statistically, Gainesville has plenty of standouts on defense. Senior safety Malion Waddell leads the way with 125 tackles, followed closely by junior safety Henry Montgomery (121).

Sophomore defensive end Jordan Giberti has recorded 13.5 sacks and junior cornerback Kris Young has five interceptions.

Aside from their two losses, the 'Canes haven't given up more than 16 points to another opponent.

Yet Latsko knows Gainesville will have its hands full, on both sides of the ball.

"On film, this is the best Springstead team I've seen," Latsko said. "They're still real aggressive and attack on defense, and they're a little more multiple on offense.

"We're going to have to play great defense. We have to play great special teams like have in the past. We have to be able to weather the storm from their offense and put the ball in the end zone a couple, three times.

"These kids want to keep playing football. We're definitely not going to overlook Springstead. But we've got to come ready to play and match their intensity. We know they're not content with their first (playoff) win at home. They want to keep playing just like we do."

Healthy Wright

When Springstead junior fullback Daniel Wright left last week's game on a stretcher, it appeared he would join leading tackler Conor Ross with a season-ending knee injury.

Instead Wright returned to practice this week and is expected to play tonight, a huge boost for the Eagles offensively.

Garofano joked that Wright's pursuit of 1,000 rushing yards aided his fast recovery. Wright, who is already over 900 yards, could join quarterback Tyler Mahla in giving the Eagles a pair of 1,000-yard rusher.

Also, junior cornerback Brian Rae should be active after a being on the shelf for several games with a rib issue.

So with that relatively clean bill of health, home-field advantage, and perhaps some confidence considering the Seahawks, who Springstead defeated in September, 14-13, nearly toppled Gainesville, the Eagles realize what's within their grasp.

"It's very exciting," Garofano said. "We're pumped up. We want it. The players want it. The coaches want it. It's a matter of game-planning and hopefully we execute the game plan this week. We've done it 10 weeks in a row. There's no reason to think we won't."

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 semifinal

Who - Gainesville Hurricanes (9-2, 6A-5 champions) at Springstead Eagles (10-1, 6A-6 champions)

Where - Booster Stadium

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

At Stake - Winner will face the survivor of Tampa-Jefferson at Seffner-Armwood in 6A-II final next Friday.

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