SPRING HILL — You won't see banners or signs around town. The community's excitement isn't immediately apparent, but it's there. People stop Bill Vonada, Springstead's former coach, and J.P. Mahla, a former player and father of the current quarterback, in the grocery store and at church to talk about the football team. "Everywhere I go, people are giving their support," J.P. Mahla said. He's usually clad in a Springstead hat or T-shirt so people pick him out easily. "It's pretty amazing how the community has rallied around this team."
Springstead faces Armwood tonight in a Class 6A region final. It's the farthest any Hernando County team has progressed in the playoffs.
The Eagles defeated Gainesville 27-7 last week, a win that stunned even their most ardent supporters.
For the Mahlas, this is just another piece of their history with the team. J.P. started for the Eagles in 1984. His son, James, played from 2006-08, and now his younger son, Tyler, is the team's quarterback.
"If it was some random group of kids winning this, I would still be involved," J.P. said. "It gives me a lot more sense of pride that my son is a big part of it."
James received at least 10 phone calls the night of the win against Gainesville. His mom, dad, uncles, aunts and grandparents wanted to share the news.
"I can't describe it in words," he said, "but this is the most proud I've ever been of my little brother, ever."
James lives in North Dakota so he'll be watching the game online. He calls Tyler before every game and plans to do so today. He reminds him to have fun.
James and J.P. said one of the keys to the team's success is how long many of the playmakers have worked together. Tyler, Daniel Wright and a few others played together in middle school and in youth leagues, and it shows in their cohesive plays.
Despite returning many of the players who took Springstead to a district championship last year, people asked J.P. how he thought the team would do with a new coach in Mike Garofano. Vonada retired in December after 15 years with the Eagles.
"I said, 'We're going to win districts.' " He paused. "I don't think anybody expected us to go this far, including myself."
Vonada, though retired, hasn't stepped completely out of the picture. He hasn't missed a game this season, and he said he has missed — at most — two or three plays. He hopes to be in Seffner tonight if he's not caught up at work.
He doesn't take credit for this year's success, despite building up the team.
"I was a part of it, but I didn't do it," Vonada said. "I was part of the staff that did it."
Garofano was a leader on the coaching staff before he took the head position, and Vonada said he knew he could step down because of his faith in Garofano.
"I knew what I was leaving behind wouldn't go to waste," he said. "It's great to see their hard work pay off."
The youngest Mahla learned Springstead had broken a county record when someone mentioned it to him the night the Eagles defeated Gainesville. Springstead has seven playoff appearances since 1993 and advanced to the second round twice.
Tyler was surprised. He'd known the game was important, but not to that extent.
He spent this week preparing as he always does: watching tape and practicing.
"What it comes down to is, it's just another football game. … I'm trying not to think about it as making history," Tyler said about facing an Armwood team that boasts two state titles and 16 playoff appearances.
"I'm just trying to do what's best for my team, and make it together."