John Capel and Anthony Owens aren't actually gone _ they remain at their respective high schools, Hernando and Springstead, running track and completing their senior years.
But for their football coaches, respectively Bill Browning and Pat McCoy, the two might as well be 1,000 miles away. Because the 1998 football campaign effectively begins today with the start of spring practice, and Capel and Owens have left some enormous shoes to fill.
"He had a great year," McCoy said of Owens, who amassed almost 1,450 yards in leading the Eagles to a 7-3 season, including an upset of Hernando in the regular-season closer.
Eugene Hicks graduated the previous year, and with Owens gone along with Nick DuPrey, Springstead is out of the veteran speed in the backfield that has powered its offense the past few years. Though Ryan Angelo (who will be a senior) returns as a solid grind-it-out fullback with 800-plus yards last fall, McCoy's ground-oriented offense is in need of speed.
While he acknowledged it would be near impossible to equal Owens' output, McCoy said he has quite a bit of upcoming talent in the backfield.
"That's one of the things we're excited about," he said. "We think we may have five or six running backs who can play on Friday night."
They include former JV players Quintin Wallace, who will be a junior, and Shaun Spivey, who moved up to the varsity late last fall as a freshman.
Ron Poulin did not play this season as a freshman, but McCoy said he has excelled in track and is excited to join the football crew.
McCoy received a bonus in Chris Riggins, who played for Land O'Lakes last fall as a junior but has moved into Springstead's district. Riggins also was used as part of a platoon of backs for the Gators, and in fact scored a touchdown against Springstead back in the fall.
Springstead also has rebuilding ahead on the lines, having lost standouts Matt Arcarola and Kevin Gundersen. McCoy has several players who have experience but did not necessarily start last year, mostly due to injuries. Tom Chiarello (6-foot-5, 320 pounds) has the most physical potential, but McCoy has great hopes for Andrew Sitar and Andrew Cestaro. All will be seniors.
"We've got good, tough young kids," the coach said. "There's a lot of new kids, but we're very encouraged."
Tim Maher will be back for his third year as the Eagles' starting quarterback, and the team also has returning strengths in Huey Whittaker and Ryan Holtje.
Though they still will be missing players to track, the numbers also are up for the Eagles, probably due to the team's 16-4 record the past two years with McCoy at the helm.
"Two years ago we finished spring with 48 kids. Last year (it was) in the high 50s, maybe about 60 at the end. It seems like we're going up around 10 again, and we're encouraged by that," McCoy said.
Consistent with past years, Springstead is bypassing a spring jamboree. However, it will play its intrasquad contest, the Blue and White game, May 21 at 7 p.m.
Over at Hernando, coach Browning will have to make do without Capel, one of the fastest high schoolers in the nation. Capel's speed allowed him to play a key role at running back, wideout, defensive back, kick returner, punt returner and pretty much everywhere he lined up.
But Hernando also lost the impressive speed and receiving abilities of Eric Kincade, and while Sam Ewing is back at receiver and defensive back, he won't get any contact this spring while he recuperates from a nagging ankle sprain.
Defensive line also is a concern: Tackle Levar Stephens and ends Kevin Tracy and Keylow King keyed an undersized but over-performing crew. Browning said he's not sure how the new line will look, but Brian Sanders and Dan Brown, who saw some time there, have matured and improved. Dee Brown, who will be a sophomore, is expected to make an impact somewhere, possibly on the line.
Browning always keys on off-season weight training, and has been impressed with the improvement of Ron Davis, expected to play a role on the line. The leader in the weight room has been the coach's son, Brandon Browning, who will play his third year at quarterback.
Brandon Browning has added about 15 pounds of muscle, making him considerably sturdier than before, his father said: "He's probably as hard a worker in the weight room as we've had. He is definitely filled out."
He could have solid targets in Jason Byrd and Aundre Greene, both up from the JV. They're running track now, but Byrd has great size and Greene great speed.
Big expectations also fall on Randy Cates, who will be a junior. He was injured early last year, but has bounced back to show potential as a linebacker, defensive end and tight end.
Chris Daley, one of the area's top linebackers as a junior, has been playing baseball and thus has not had as much weight room time as Browning would like, but coach expects great improvement over the summer.
Like Ewing, Johnnie Thompson will not have contact, having received surgery on a nagging shoulder injury. The surgery went well, and Thompson will be expected to play an important role. He and his cousin, Jamar Williams, came up big at running back and outside linebacker as sophomores. They haven't gotten any taller, Browning said, but that never stopped them from hitting extremely hard.
Hernando plays its Purple and Gold game May 15 and follows by playing host to a jamboree May 22. Citrus plays Central in a half-length contest at 7 p.m., followed by Hernando vs. South Sumter.
Central will look to improve on a tough 1997 campaign this spring. After reaching the post-season in their first two seasons under Steve Crognale, the Bears were consistently hurt by injuries and found few wins. Considering Crognale's ability to squeeze the most out his team's abilities, Central should be greatly improved in 1998.