SPRING HILL — At times over the past few years, Springstead's football program struggled to find an identity on offense. With Nathan Sims taking over at quarterback, the Eagles have gone back to the roots that led the program to a region final berth in 2013.
The junior brings an athletic dimension to the position Springstead embraces. While Jordan Wright boasted a bigger arm as the starter the past three years, Sims is more mobile and a better runner, much like Tyler Mahla was during his tenure (2011-13). Mahla rushed for a school-record 32 career touchdowns.
Combined with the big-play ability of senior Randy Morgan, Sims has grown more comfortable running the triple-option offense. But the process was not an easy one.
A nagging right ankle injury kept Sims out of the preseason game at Hudson and the season opener against Central. Averaging 4.6 yards per carry, he has made defenses respect him enough to open lanes for Morgan, who has racked up more than 700 yards from scrimmage. The duo has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns.
"It's getting a little bit better every game," Sims said. "It's been frustrating sometimes, but we are starting to communicate as a team, and especially between me and Randy. We have to adjust and step up."
In Mike Garofano's first season (2013), the Eagles went 11-2, losing to area powerhouse Armwood in the playoffs.
Since then Garofano and his staff have gone 19-14 with only one postseason berth — last season when Springstead finished as the Class 6A, District 6 runnerup before getting dominated in the first round 45-0 by Ocala Vanguard.
Garofano, a former defensive coordinator, has always placed his chips on that side of the ball. Inconsistent play on offense has been the cause of most ups and downs for the Eagles over the past few years, but the defense continued to hold up.
In his final five seasons as coordinator under former coach Bill Vonada, Garofano's unit surrendered only 18 points per game. Since taking over as head coach, the same unit has given up 17 per game. The common thread has always been a vocal leader in the middle of the defense.
That spot is currently being filled by sophomore Adrian Cabrera, who is on pace to decimate Conor Ross's school record for career tackles (396) only one and a half seasons. Cabrera has become the heart and soul of the Springstead defense. At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Cabrera racked up 133 tackles last year. The total was good enough for third on the North Suncoast.
"Cabrera is always flying around out there," said Garofano after the Eagles' 17-9 win over district foe Sunlake two weeks ago. "And he's playing more offense this year, which is so impressive. We need him, and he always seems to come through for us."
The middle linebacker went from being a force on the field to a vocal leader in the locker room. Through seven weeks, he is sitting third in tackles in the area with 62 behind only Wesley Chapel's Austen Wittish (104) and Anclote's Riley Currey (64).
Undefeated Mitchell has received little resistance on the way to dominating the district this year, but the Eagles provided a fight on the road last week.
Springstead and the Mustangs were tied at 7 at halftime, but a blocked field goal late in the first half gave Mitchell a boost going into the locker room. It took only four minutes for the Mustangs offense to score on a Mychael Hamilton rushing touchdown in the third quarter, and everything seemed to mount from there as Mitchell won 28-7.
"We were confident coming into the game," Sims said, "but once the field goal got blocked, the mood changed."
The effort can be a jumping off point for Springstead as the team enters the second half of its schedule. A win at home over Land O'Lakes on Friday night can get the Eagles back on the winning track.
Because of the new postseason setup, every game is crucial to deciding Springstead's playoff fate. Only district champions are guaranteed a postseason berth with all other spots going to teams that qualify for an at-large bid based on a points system. Prior to the Mitchell game, the Eagles were among those teams projected to make the Class 6A field.
"Honestly, we know we can do better," Sims said. "Mitchell is a good team, but that only motivates us more to beat the teams on the second half of our schedule. We need to get more intensity on both sides of the ball if we're going to get where we want to go."