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Thursday, Mar 26, 2015

Springstead seniors leave lasting legacy


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SEFFNER - Mike Garofano addressed his team in one last postgame huddle, his rookie season as Springstead head coach having come to a close.

He admitted the Eagles had run into a better team in Seffner-Armwood, a perennial state title contender and the second-ranked squad in Class 6A that looked every bit the part.

Even though the Hawks had cruised to a 41-0 victory in Friday night's 6A-Region II final, Garofano reiterated to his players what they had accomplished reaching that point.

Offensive coordinator Dustin Kupcik took his turn and hammered home the idea that these Eagles had raised the bar, setting a new standard for Springstead football.

They have done so for the county, as well. Never had a local team went to a third postseason round, repeated as district champion or won 11 games in a season.

All of those benchmarks, among others, were achieved within the past few weeks.

"This will go down as the best senior class we've ever had, possibly in county history," Garofano said. "I'm proud of these guys, proud to be their coach, proud that my first year as head coach that these were my guys.

"They just played together. They played smart, executed. I think we just had a good, solid, smart team. No D-I athletes. . We play within ourselves, we play as a team, and that's what got us through that 11-game win streak."

At the forefront of that veteran group was quarterback Tyler Mahla, who took his final snaps for the Eagles having already established a resume that likely makes him the finest signal caller in the program's near 40 years of existence.

Mahla came in as the county's leading rusher, with 1,177 yards and a school-record 18 touchdowns on the ground, and the top passer, having completed 60-of-114 tosses for 772 yards with six touchdowns against five interceptions.

The third-year starter was an All-County selection the past two years and garnered Florida Athletic Coaches Association MVP honors for District 10 this season.

Even in defeat, Mahla exhibited the maturity and clarity that made him such an effective leader.

"It really hasn't hit me yet," Mahla said of his prep career ending. "They were fast, they were strong. They knew their stuff. They're an amazing team. They know what they're doing and they got a lot of D-I prospects to show for it.

"Unbelievable (season). I still can't believe it. It's probably the greatest thing to ever happen in my life."

Mahla pointed to the closeness of the seniors, stemming from an offseason Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp and the efforts of the coaches to maintain that cohesiveness.

By contrast, senior Jesse Cowan, an All-County nose guard who stepped in to replace injured linebacker Juan Espinosa, wore the sting of the loss on his sleeve.

On the defensive side, a unit that had shut down the potent offenses of Citrus and Gainesville the past two weeks had difficulty stopping the fast and physical Hawks.

"Nothing we could do," Cowan said. "It's not good enough. We should have been better. We should have trained harder."

The loss of linebackers Espinosa and Conor Ross, the team's two leading tacklers, to knee injuries left that unit short-handed.

However, both are juniors and figure to return in 2014. Same goes for fullback Daniel Wright, who came in with 1,143 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground but left early in the third quarter with a probable concussion.

Next year the Eagles would surely like to prove this was more than a one-year spike, that they can maintain a level excellence just like the team on the opposing sideline.

"I think the underclassmen are in great shape," Mahla said. "They had good leadership this year and I think they're going to step up and take care of it next year."

"Armwood's a good team," Garofano said. "Of course we would have liked a better showing, to play better. Armwood's just another level we're not at yet. Hopefully we'll get there in the next year or the next few years to come.

"We'll learn from this game. The bar's been raised by this group of seniors. The underclassmen have some big shoes to fill. They're hoping to get back here again next year."

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