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Coach stepping in, reaching out at Tarpon Springs

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Mon. September 10, 2012 | Bob Putnam | Email

Coach stepping in, reaching out at Tarpon Springs

TARPON SPRINGS — Besides his weekly radio show, Ron Hawn takes other pulse readings for perceptions of Tarpon Springs High School football.

He chats with locals each Tuesday during a coaches’ dinner at various community restaurants. He holds practices that are open to the public Wednesday nights at the stadium. He conducts camps in the city’s youth leagues.

So far, the vibe is good.

Hawn, in his first official season as head coach, has guided a Spongers team that lost several skill players to graduation to a 2-0 start as it heads into Friday’s big home game against neighboring rival East Lake.

“It’s a nice start, but there’s still work to do,” Hawn said.

More than molding what had been an inconsistent program in recent years into the juggernaut of the past, Hawn has had to mend the relationship between the community and its beloved football program.

Last year, Hawn took over as interim coach in late September after Tarpon Springs administrators fired Atif Austin, a former standout at the school who often clashed with booster club members once he returned to his alma mater.

Hawn became the Spongers’ fifth coach in eight seasons.

“I really didn’t have time to analyze, just react,” Hawn said.

The interim coach honeymoon can be as fickle as a reality show marriage, especially at a school with a demanding fan base. Hawn knew the jolt of anxiety and urgency that infused the locker room could fade. The freshness of a new voice could wear off.

After starting 3-1 last year, the Spongers went 3-3 down the stretch and failed to make the playoffs. But Hawn did enough during his brief stint to convince the community and the school to remove the interim tag.

“There was a lot of turmoil with the way everything went down last year,” said Louis Jack Pappas, who played for Tarpon Springs from 1975-78 and has two sons who were part of the program. “Ron was put in a real tough situation and he did a good job of settling the program. It’s all about continuity and consistency, and he’s bringing in some stability that we need.

“This is a tight community where everyone is involved. Ron has embraced that and helped make everyone feel they are a part of the team.”

For lots of people in Tarpon Springs, watching football is not just a pastime, it is part of the fabric of small-town life. White and maroon balloons adorn mailboxes on the street leading up the stadium before big games. Spongers memorabilia sells in stores. This week, T-shirts with the slogan “Kill the Bird” will be worn by fans, and a local supermarket is holding a tailgating party before the game against the Eagles.

“Tarpon Springs is a different place,” Hawn said. “It’s special. Good or bad they’re going to be there and they’re going to be involved. I spent some time in Boston and I think Red Sox and Sponger fans have the same mind-set. Both are knowledgeable about their sport and cheer teams that are usually good each year. They’re always going to support you, but they’re going to be critical at times, too.

“This isn’t some run-of-the-mill school. The people here care what goes on. And I wanted to make sure they felt they had a stock in the team.”

One of the first things Hawn did was reach out to the youth leagues. Besides holding camps, he conducted a high school practice on the youth fields where young players could mingle with players from the high school most would eventually attend.

That’s not all. Hawn also talked to teachers, community leaders and alumni. At a summer introductory meeting that used to be restricted to players and parents, Hawn invited anyone in the community. About 350 showed up.

“So far, I think the community has been real positive about the change,” Tarpon booster club president Dave Collins said. “Ron is really trying to build up the Tarpon family. It’s showed. We’ve had two away games and the visitors’ stands have been packed. But the biggest thing is having a good product on the field. We have that right now. And as long as we’re successful, it’s hard to get rid of somebody.”

Despite graduating last year’s leading passer (Louis Pappas) and leading rusher (Kenny Blanch), the Spongers are undefeated thanks to a veteran and beefy offensive line. Kenyatta Merriex, a shifty receiver, has turned into a jack-of-all-trades and has put some oomph into the offense.

But the one statistic the fan base will remember is the three-year winless streak against East Lake. To generate excitement, Hawn is having his players dress in all-white uniforms and urging fans to wear white shirts.

“Ron is working as many avenues as possible to get the community to rally around the team,” said assistant principal Emmanuel Gombos, who graduated from the school in 1969 and has worked there the past 38 years. “That support doesn’t always come easily here. It’s a community school and we want the best that we can have. And we want it right away. Sometimes those things don’t happen so quickly. I think if Ron is given time, he’ll do well.”

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@tampabay.com.

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