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Wednesday, Mar 04, 2015

Springstead's season comes full-circle


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Exactly 11 weeks and nine games apiece have transpired since Springstead and Citrus took the field to open the season.

It was a night the Eagles may have wanted to expunge from their memories, a humbling 42-14 defeat up in Inverness.

They've long since washed that bitter taste from their mouths, going unbeaten the rest of the way while collecting Class 6A, District 6 and county championships.

So it is that Springstead (9-1) finds itself hosting a 6A-Region II quarterfinal at Booster Stadium, tonight at 7:30 p.m.

And the Eagles, in a unique twist, are essentially back where they started: starring at Citrus (9-1) on the opposing sideline.

"This is what the regular season was for," Springstead head coach Mike Garofano said. "All those games are behind us now. We're looking at this one standing right in front of us. The kids are looking for a little revenge this time around.

"I've never been part of anything like this. It's a big motivator. The guys are chomping at the bit to get back at them. It seems like we didn't give them our best shot last time around."

As Garofano pointed out, since the second quarter of that game, in which the Hurricanes scored 27 points, the Eagles have been rolling.

After falling behind 33-0 over the first two quarters, Springstead actually won the second half, 14-9. Since that night, the Eagles have outscored their opponents, 266-85.

So what exactly happened at the Citrus Bowl to lead to such a lopsided outcome?

For starters, the 'Canes are pretty darn good. They had thumped Nature Coast in the preseason, 47-7, and took out Hernando two weeks later, 26-6.

A team that had gone from 2-8 to 6-5 to 7-4 in its first three seasons under headman Rayburn Greene took a huge step forward this year.

"When we came into this program four years ago, they had gone 2-8 two straight years," Greene said. "The first thing we had to do was change the culture and that had to start in the weight room. We were able to do that and start brainwashing the freshmen that they could be winners.

"It's a tremendous feeling of satisfaction to be at this point. Four years ago we were everybody's homecoming and just worried about trying to compete."

Senior quarterback Deion Moore has completed 64-of-146 passes for 1,299 yards, throwing 16 touchdowns against two interceptions.

The team has amassed 2,534 yards and 25 scores on the ground, paced by senior James Pouncey (816 yards, nine touchdowns).

Four other players have rushed for at least 200 yards, including Javian Clark (543 yards, three touchdowns) and Tyric Washington (458 yards, two touchdowns).

Cousins Sam and Desmond Franklin have combined to haul in 41 passes for 911 yards and 11 scores.

The defense hasn't been too shabby, either. Senior defensive lineman Steven Knowles has recorded team highs of 112 tackles and 20 sacks.

Two others have surpassed the century mark in tackles, senior linebackers Jaimee Juse (106) and Frankie Bartley (102), while junior linebacker Travis Blotz sits at 99.

It's no wonder Citrus owns a 362-144 scoring margin and spent several weeks in the Associated Press state poll.

The big problem for the 'Canes, two other teams within their district, 6A-5, were also ranked at one point or another. While the 'Canes bested Ocala-Vanguard, 41-33 on Oct. 4, Gainesville got the better of them on Oct. 25, 38-16.

But that one blemish wasn't enough to prevent them from securing the district runner-up spot and their first playoff berth since 2006.

"We talked about why we focused so hard in the district games and we did play in a brutal district, one of the toughest in the state of Florida," Greene said. "But that's not the end. It's a means to an end; 9-1 is over, 9-1 is not going to help us this week. It's a new season, an opportunity to advance."

Un-Eagle like performance

Still, the Eagles are no slouch. They came into the season off a 9-2 campaign in 2012, and their first district title since 1996.

Even with the resignation of longtime head coach Bill Vonada, the promotion of Garofano from defensive coordinator and a slew of returning starters figured to keep Springstead among the better teams in the area.

That just wasn't what the Eagles looked like that initial regular-season contest.

At its peak, Springstead has become well-known for its crisp, mistake-free style of play. Yet Citrus forced four turnovers (two lost fumbles, two interceptions), and the Eagles were flagged seven times for 90 yards.

To that end, Nature Coast was hit with 11 penalties for 110 yards and Hernando 12 for 122 during their trips to Citrus. That's a noteworthy trend considering the scene now shifts to friendlier confines for the Eagles.

Still, the referees couldn't take all the blame, as Springstead committed several uncharacteristic miscues.

The Eagles fumbled a ball on the Citrus 29, leading to the 'Canes first touchdown. A turnover on downs on Springstead's own 40 was followed the next play by a scoring strike from Moore to Desmond Franklin that made it 20-0.

In the final minute of the opening half, Pouncey picked off a pass and returned it 29 yards to pay dirt.

There was also a safety due to intentional grounding in the end zone early in the fourth quarter, and an ensuing 42-yard touchdown run by Pouncey.

"It was everything; penalties, turnovers. They came out physical and ready to play, and we weren't," Garofano said. "It was everything, all of the above, and it all culminated in the second quarter.

"Momentum plays a big part in high school football and all the momentum was on their side. It snowballed and we couldn't stop them."

Two late touchdown runs by Mahla and Kevin Bedford provided the Eagles some respectability in what had become a laugher.

Neither coach felt there was as wide a chasm between the two teams as that outcome in August would indicate.

"We were fortunate that we caught some breaks that night. We had some things go our way," Greene said. "They're better than that and what they've done the last nine games proves that they are."

Unusual familiarity

Typically the postseason creates uncomfortable matchups, pitting clubs that haven't seen one another outside of film study.

That can be particularly helpful for Springstead, which employs a unique triple option. It's debatable whether that advantage holds up tonight.

"Week 1 feels like a million years ago," Greene said. "I don't know if seeing that offense 2 1/2 months ago helps. It's tough to prepare for (quarterback) Tyler Mahla and (fullback) Daniel Wright. They play a 10-yard field and they'll use four downs to get 10 yards. You need to be disciplined or they'll make you pay for it."

Having rushed for over 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns in the regular season, the senior Mahla has been a force for the Eagles all along.

Wright, a junior, combined for 323 yards and five scores running the ball the past two weeks in critical wins over Land O' Lakes and Hernando.

The Eagles do face a significant personnel issue due to the season-ending knee injury suffered by junior linebacker Conor Ross, the team's leading tackler at 114.

"He's our leader on defense," Garofano said. "He's a defensive captain. He makes the calls on defense. He makes us go.

"It'll be hard to fill his shoes. But other guys have got to step up. Injuries are part of football."

Replacing Ross falls on the shoulders of senior Austin Stock, who had an interception last week.

Also, cornerback Brian Rae remains out with a rib issue. Greene reported no major injuries for the 'Canes.

Even without Ross, the expectation is that Springstead will put together a more competitive showing against Citrus on this stage.

The Eagles are 0-4 all-time in playoff games in Spring Hill, so there's a chance to change that for the better.

"We're looking at setting more milestones each week with this senior class," Garofano said. "We've accomplished back-to-back district titles, which no one in the county had done.

"Now we're looking at giving Springstead its first home playoff win ever. We're looking at trying to make history. We're not complacent. We're not satisfied with what we've done so far. We're trying to move forward."

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 quarterfinal

Who - Citrus Hurricanes (9-1, 6A-5 runners-up) at Springstead Eagles (9-1, 6A-6 champions)

Where - Booster Stadium

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

At Stake - Winner will face the survivor of Sunlake at Gainesville in 6A-II semifinals next Friday.

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