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Springstead upset puts pressure on for Tarpon matchup

Fans in stadiums across the North Suncoast couldn't believe one score that echoed among the others on the night of Oct. 24:

River Ridge 31, Springstead 14.

Husbands turned to wives in disbelief. Coaches grabbed athletic directors and begged them to triple check the score.

To say this was one of the great football upsets in North Suncoast history is no overstatement, and it transformed the Class 4A, District 8 race into one of the bay area's most captivating.

"Honestly, no one expected us to win that game," River Ridge coach Tim Stevens said. " … We gave those guys (Tarpon Springs and Land O'Lakes) a second life."

Now the district race comes down to three teams — all 6-2, 3-1 in the district — and two games Friday. The most significant is Springstead's visit to Tarpon Springs.

Assuming Land O'Lakes defeats Ridgewood (a reasonable assumption):

• A Springstead win will give the Eagles the district title and knock Tarpon from playoff contention.

• A Tarpon win hands Land O'Lakes the district title and eliminates Springstead from playoff contention.

Such is the do-or-die stage — erected by River Ridge — upon which the Eagles and Spongers will perform.

The Royal Knights entered that Oct. 24 game having lost 38 of their past 39. Their lone win during that stretch: against first-year program Sunlake, in Sunlake's first varsity contest.

Springstead expected to be one win closer to a playoff berth and its first district title since 1996.

The upset sparked chaos, and River Ridge had suddenly raised its average to one win every two seasons.

"(Gators coach John) Benedetto called me the day after and thanked me for doing him a favor," Stevens said. "I guess it was a big upset. … They were in first place for the district and we didn't win a district game in how many years?"

Springstead was having a remarkable season, winning five of its first six games. Its lone loss was at Nature Coast, now ranked No. 10 in the Class 3A state poll. The Eagles were 2 yards shy of punching in the winning score when a fumble at the center-quarterback exchange helped the Sharks seal the 20-15 victory.

Despite that setback, the Eagles had no district losses until their visit to River Ridge.

What was thought to be an improbable upset was something some saw coming.

"You could see it happen," Land O'Lakes assistant Al Claggett said. "Springstead didn't play very well defensively at the line of scrimmage. River Ridge was able to run their dive play and their power play. … In the fourth quarter, Springstead turned the ball over three straight times in their territory."

Spongers coach George Kotis noted the Eagles were also banged up and lost nose guard Christian Quinones, who has been out with a leg injury but could return this week.

Kotis doesn't expect an easy game Friday.

"(Springstead has) the senior leadership at all the skill spots," Kotis said. "I mean, that's a big chunk of it. The senior leaders have been in the same system and know how it works. They're high-quality kids."

The Eagles dusted themselves off last week with a 28-14 win over Ridgewood. Once the pageantry and distraction from homecoming ended, coach Bill Vonada gathered his team for a brief critique then stated the obvious: Tarpon Springs is a playoff game.

"I think mentally we're in a good spot," Vonada said. "Give River Ridge credit, but our guys really felt like they did not give their best performance. Certainly, the season's not over. I don't want to say the season will be lost.

"I can guarantee you this is the biggest game this week."

Times staff writer Joey Knight contributed to this report.

Springstead upset puts pressure on for Tarpon matchup 11/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 6, 2008 11:57am]
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