SPRING HILL — On the surface, this year’s Springstead team doesn’t look much different than last season’s.
If true, there would be no shame in it. The Eagles won only their third district title and started the 2012 campaign 9-0 under then-coach Bill Vonada.
The final two games of the year — the regular-season finale against rival Nature Coast and first-round playoff meeting with Ocala-Vanguard — did not end the way the Eagles had hoped. But it was still the most successful year for Springstead on the gridiron in many ways.
Vonada bowed out in the spring and handed the reins over to longtime defensive coordinator Mike Garofano. From the get-go, the first-year coach made it clear the Eagles would be more aggressive.
“We’re going to be less conservative than we’ve been,” Garofano said in early August. “You’ll see us go for it on fourth down more and put together some long drives.”
It was difficult to determine whether it was just coach speak or if Garofano really had plans to take more chances. Once his players took the field, the answer became obvious.
Springstead has far more fourth-down conversions than last year. The coaching staff has also added a pitch option to the team’s traditional read-option offense.
Last week’s 41-20 victory over Hernando featured the signature play of Garofano’s philosophy. With shades of LSU coach Les Miles’ fake field goal call against Florida in October 2010, Springstead’s “Mad Hatter” made a similar call as the Eagles were attempting a field goal inside the red zone.
Calling the play Tiger Fake Field Goal in homage to LSU, quarterback and holder Tyler Mahla took the snap as usual before making a no-look backward pitch to placekicker Tyler Toth, who ran around the end for a go-ahead touchdown.
“It was a play we’ve worked on since before the season began,” Garofano said. “We called a timeout and said, ‘It’s now or never.’ Things lined up great for us, and (Mahla) made a perfect pitch.”
Whether it is the newfound confidence offensively or the stalwart defense that Garofano has molded for more than a decade, the Eagles became the first team in Hernando County to win back-to-back district championships by clinching the Class 6A, District 6 title two weeks ago.
The victory gives Springstead (9-1) its fifth home playoff game at Booster Stadium. The team is 0-4 in the postseason on its home field, another thing the Eagles think will change.
“We’re here to make history,” defensive tackle Jesse Cowan said. “The will (to win) doesn’t stop.”
The Eagles lost leading tackler Conor Ross (114 tackles, four forced fumbles, six sacks, one interception) to a torn left ACL in their district-clinching win over Land O’Lakes, but Austin Stock (65 tackles) is filling in admirably, picking up an interception against Hernando. Cowan (66 tackles, six forced fumbles, four sacks) stepped up as well, notching a sack and fumble recovery.
Everything will have to line up perfectly for Springstead to end its playoff drought.
Citrus, the same team that upended the Eagles 42-14 in the season opener, comes to town Friday. It was a sloppy night for the offense in Week 1, setting up the Hurricanes with multiple red-zone opportunities due to turnovers.
“I watched the tape of that game, and I don’t even know who that team is,” Springstead offensive coordinator Dustin Kupcik told the players. “We’re not the same team now. We’ve come a long way.”
Defensively, the Eagles will have their hands full with Citrus’ double-barreled attack. Deion Moore has thrown for 1,299 yards with 16 touchdowns and only two interceptions, plus he’s run for 276 yards and four more scores. As a unit, the Hurricanes added more than 2,500 yards on the ground with 25 touchdowns. Six ball carriers rushed for more than 100 yards on the way to a 9-1 record.
Mahla, playing in his third postseason in four years, will have to take care of the ball for the Springstead offense. Three Citrus players (Steven Knowles, Jamie Juse, and Frank Bartley) have accrued more than 100 tackles and one other has 99 (Travis Blotz). Knowles also has 20 sacks, while leading the program to a plus-21 margin on turnovers. By comparison, Springstead was second on the North Suncoast at plus-14 (Hudson, plus-19).
When he resigned his position after 15 seasons, Vonada knew he was leaving a special team behind.
“The players understand the commitment level that it takes now,” Vonada said following last year’s loss to Vanguard. “We have a good nucleus coming back, and with the right attitude, we have an opportunity to get back here.”
7:30 p.m. Friday
Sunlake at Gainesville
Citrus at Springstead
Hudson at Lakewood
Tarpon Springs at Anclote
Pasco at Citra North Marion