SPRING HILL — “Next man up” has been echoed by the Springstead staff for years, but the words have never been more applicable than to this season’s defense.
When Conor Ross went down during the district-deciding game against Land O’Lakes in Week 10, many feared Springstead’s postseason run would be short. Ross led the team with 114 tackles and six sacks in fewer than nine games, and his torn ACL left the Eagles without their starting middle linebacker.
Then Juan Espinosa, who had 82 tackles through the regular-season finale, stepped up to accrue 18 tackles in the 21-6 region quarterfinal victory over Citrus.
That standout performance would be Espinosa’s last of the postseason. In the first quarter against Gainesville the following week, the linebacker was carted off the Booster Stadium field and taken away in an ambulance with a severely dislocated knee. Springstead played the remainder of the game without 214 total tackles on the gridiron to stop one of the pre-eminent rushing attacks in the region.
“When Juan went down, I was trying to figure out what we were going to do at linebacker,” first-year coach Mike Garofano said. “Someone like Nathan (Kocolowski) has been waiting the whole season for an opportunity so when he got it, he took advantage.”
Led by Jesse Cowan, the Eagles responded by holding the Hurricanes to only 108 yards rushing in the 27-7 win. Austin Stock, in for Ross, and Kocolowski, who took Espinosa’s place, contributed immediately. Stock intercepted a pass against Citrus, and Kocolowski picked off Gainesville quarterback Caelan Christian.
Kocolowski, a nose tackle, bumped Cowan back to middle linebacker, where Garofano has confidence the veteran leader can run the defense.
“Injuries are a part of football,” Garofano said, “but I expect these guys to come off the bench and play well. It’s not a surprise how well they’ve done.”
With four sacks, a forced fumble and fumble recovery, Cowan has been more of a presence than even his statistics indicate. His ability to take up blockers on the opposing offensive line allowed the linebackers behind him to roam and make plays. Now, he is the linebacker calling out plays.
“Playing behind Jesse makes the job of every guy much easier,” Garofano said. “Nathan may not be as strong as Jesse, but his strengths are Jesse’s weaknesses. He’s very quick off the ball and uses that to his advantage.”
The system has proved successful for more than a decade. When Garofano took over as defensive coordinator in 2002, the play on that side of the ball became the Eagles’ calling card.
Heading into Friday’s game at Armwood (12-0), Garofano knows his defense will have its hands full. The Hawks are one of the most storied high school programs in the state with two titles (2003, ’04) under their belt.
“It’s unfortunate to be somewhat limping into this game with Armwood,” Garofano said, “but once you get on the field you can throw records out the window. We’re not going against players from those title teams.”
Armwood has rushed for 2,010 yards, and before the Eagles can focus on that, the balanced attack has also thrown for 1,831 yards. Not only do the Hawks rack up yardage, but with only 10 turnovers (seven interceptions, three lost fumbles) the explosive unit takes care of the ball.
As has been the case with every top opponent Springstead has faced, the team’s fate will rest primarily on play in the trenches. The defensive line with Cowan, Shane Wiggins and Travis O’Neil will need to get penetration so the linebacking corps of Stock, Kocolowski, Robert Holdway and Dylan McLeod can hold containment on the quick Armwood backs.
Hawks quarterback Noah Johnson has thrown for 1,637 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions while rushing for a team-high 708 yards and 12 touchdowns. His scrambling ability makes him the most dangerous player Springstead has lined up against this season.
“We have to be disciplined and play assignment football,” Garofano said. “We have to be really under control and not miss tackles. Every one of their running backs and receivers can take it the distance on any given play.”
The belief in “next man up” keeps Springstead moving.
“Preaching it the way we have, I think it’s easier for (our backups) to envision (themselves) in that position,” Garofano said. “Our job is to prepare them for the opportunity.”