TARPON SPRINGS — The Tarpon Springs Spongers made a handful of game-changing plays last week against Gainesville, none bigger than Kostas Vavlas’ fumble recovery in the final seconds of the Class 4A region semifinal.
It spoiled the Hurricanes’ chance to send the game into overtime and helped Tarpon Springs (10-2) advance to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 1986.
On the play, Vavlas studied quarterback Ryan McGriff’s face like a textbook before cutting across the line of scrimmage and pouncing on a ball that McGriff bobbled but intended to spike.
“Kostas is a very instinctive player,” Spongers coach George Kotis said. “And he only knows one motor and that’s fast.”
This season, Vavlas, Tarpon Springs’ starting middle linebacker, has made his usual assortment of eye-popping plays: hard hits up the middle, heart-stopping blitzes with the uncanny ability to squeeze his muscular 235-pound frame into running lanes to stop a play cold.
He also has become the Spongers’ most important defensive presence, a bruiser with the tiptoe finesse of a ballerina. He can stop the run with his size and cover the pass with his speed and grace. He is a football aberration, too big to do the many things he somehow does.
“Kostas isn’t just the leader of the defense,” Kotis said. “He is the leader of the team.”
Last year, Vavlas emerged as an every-down force and recorded 135 tackles. This season, he has been even better, with more than 160 tackles.
“I knew we had some people who graduated from last year’s team, so I had to step up,” Vavlas said. “I wanted to be the guy everyone looked up to.”
Because they serve as every-down playmakers and consistent signal callers, middle linebackers need brains and brawn.
Vavlas has both. He carries a 4.3 grade point average and has scored more than a 1,000 on the SAT.
College recruiters are starting to take notice. This week, North Carolina State requested game tape of him.
“It would be nice to get into a big school,” Vavlas said. “But right now I’m focused on this week’s game.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org