Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Sports

Column: Underdog Springstead keeps chin up as Armwood awaits

SEFFNER

Daniel Larusso used the crane to take out the Cobra Kai, and Jimmy Chitwood hit that jumper from the free-throw line, and Rocky beat Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago.

So, who is writing the script — and soundtrack, because what's a big upset without the catchy chest-thumping tunes — for Friday night, when Springstead High's football team travels to take on mighty Armwood?

The Eagles (11-1) will fly into Seffner still sky-high after last week's upset win over Gainesville, which has set up this unlikely meeting between a homegrown, small-town band of players — Springstead is in Spring Hill, since I know you're wondering — and, well, the men of Armwood.

This is not to disparage the Eagles. They are a fine football team. Sneaky good. And considering their local flavor and workmanlike style, pretty easy to root for.

But they are big underdogs. If Vegas were setting a line, the number would probably be one a running back might wear.

This is an opportunity, however. The biggest football playoff games in school history — in Hernando County history — have involved teams from Daytona Beach, South Sumter and North Marion.

This, though, is Armwood. Undefeated (12-0), two-time state champions, local power, statewide reputation, nationally known.

This is opportunity.

"This is what we wanted to do all year, was to put Springstead on the map," quarterback Tyler Mahla said.

The Eagles will certainly get their chance.

It has been a remarkable season for Springstead, even after it started most unremarkably with a 42-14 loss in the season opener. But that was back in August, and Springstead hasn't lost since.

This best team in school history has now won 11 straight games, beaten district rival Sunlake twice and won two playoff games for the first time.

But, well, you know, Hernando County and all that.

So when last week's score — 27-7 — was announced during Armwood's victory over Jefferson, there were bewildered looks, which turned blissful.

Armwood was prepared for Gainesville, even eager to play the team that manhandled it last year in a season-ending loss.

But Springstead?

"We're kind of used to that," Mahla said. "We've always been that small program, never had anyone really big, no one really fast, no studs. Our coaches always say we're lunchpail guys. We just show up and put in work."

Springstead does nothing flashy. It runs the veer as well as Armwood coach Sean Callahan has seen anyone run it this year, and Mahla is an exceptional decision maker.

The Eagles don't make mistakes. They play a hard-nosed style of defense out of a 3-4 alignment that focuses on making tackles.

"Not a lot of splash plays," Callahan said.

But the ripples have been effective.

Mahla, a former Springstead water boy who has carried on his family's tradition at quarterback, might be a name you've seen. Or Daniel Wright, a tough little back and 1,000-yard rusher who doesn't get his fair due.

And the defense, gutted recently by injuries to its linebackers, is tough and hard-nosed, like Mike Garofano, the architect who created it the previous 10 years as the defensive coordinator before taking over as head coach this season.

But otherwise, the Eagles are a mystery to just about anyone outside Pasco and Hernando counties.

Hernando County has had its greats, make no mistake. Jerome Brown was a legend at Hernando High, Central sent running back DuJuan Harris to the NFL, Nature Coast Tech has churned out Division I runners, and Springstead once boasted top recruit and Florida Gator Ed Chester.

But these guys are rare. To put it another way: At many points over the past decade, Armwood has had players just like Brown, Harris and Chester, all on the same team at the same time.

The result Friday, on paper, is predictable.

Mahla knows the script has already been written in many people's minds.

But his script is more like the one where the kick lands, the shot swishes through and the punch produces a stunning knockout.

"Coach says we need to be hungry.

"There's no need for us to count us out," Mahla said, "since everyone else is doing it."

John C. Cotey can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

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Published: 06/20/18