SPRING HILL — When Luke McLeod first stepped onto the field at Springstead, no one would have guessed he’d become the anchor of arguably the best defense in school history.
Friday, the Eagles (9-1) will host Vanguard (5-5) in the Class 6A state quarterfinals, only the second home playoff game in program history. The feat is in no small part due to that defense and McLeod. But at first glance, he’s an unlikely star.
“Luke may not be the size of other impact linebackers,” coach Bill Vonada said of his 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior linebacker, “but he studies the game as good as any player I’ve seen.”
As a lanky underclassman, McLeod spent the majority of his first season in high school on the junior varsity squad. He hardly stood out physically, but once the ball was snapped, his effort made him a coach’s favorite.
Once he made varsity as a sophomore, he fit into a veteran defense at strong safety. Even with seniors like Josh Santana, Tom Hyde, Tim Furchak and Lou Wendelstedt bolstering the unit, McLeod finished second on the team in tackles with 91, behind only Santana (118).
“I just go 100 percent on every play,” McLeod said. “I don’t take plays off.”
His presence helped push the Eagles to their last state playoff appearance and Vonada’s second postseason victory since taking over in 1998, when the team toppled Wiregrass Ranch 40-8 on the road.
When the program lost so many key players to graduation, McLeod slipped in as a linebacker and didn’t miss a beat. Not only was he strong at the position because of his tackling, but his coverage skills made him an asset on pass defense.
The only thing that derailed his campaign was a concussion sustained in a loss to Fivay. He attempted to come back various times during the season, never at 100 percent, but still tied for the team lead in interceptions (three) and was fifth in tackles (37).
“Last season was the worst time of my life so far; it killed me sitting out,” McLeod said. “I knew that once I got back out there I was going to take advantage of every second on that field, because you never know when that one play will be your last.”
Springstead went 4-6 in 2011, but the makings of a quality team were there. Coaches praised the skills of then-freshman linebacker Conor Ross, safety Pedro Estrada, and defensive backs Nick Bailey and Joe Predoehl. With experience and health, this could be the backbone of a contending team.
Mike Garofano, in his 11th season as defensive coordinator, saw his hopes come to fruition. The team has set school records for consecutive wins (nine) and wins in a season while capturing only its second district title.
McLeod’s 114 tackles are third on the North Suncoast behind Mitchell’s Sammy Miller (151) and Hernando’s Jeremiah Jackson (128). His leadership has helped the unit jell and fulfill the potential of many players, including younger brother Dylan, a sophomore defensive back.
“(Luke and Dylan) come from a hard-working family,” Vonada said. “Dylan is very similar to what Luke was like at his age, and he knows the value of hard work.”
The senior’s prowess isn’t contained to the defensive side of the ball. He is also the team’s punter, averaging 30.6 yards per kick and pinning opponents inside the 20 12 times. As a tight end, he has caught three passes for 41 yards and a touchdown.
His abilities have drawn the attention of Appalachian State and Jacksonville University, and with his SAT scores still pending, he thinks he has a good chance to play at a Division I-AA program.
But for now, McLeod is focused on bringing home Springstead’s third playoff win — and possibly more.
Class 6A region quarterfinal
Ocala Vanguard (5-5) at Springstead (9-1)
Where: 7:30 Friday
Scouting report: Vanguard has a 20-6 victory over first-round Pasco opponent North Marion and a 34-19 loss to 6A No. 1 Gainesville this season. … Junior quarterback Adam Robles has thrown for 1,752 yards and 19 touchdowns with eight interceptions. His key receivers are junior Natrelle Jamerson (554 yards, six TDs), and seniors Cameron Livingston (468, seven) and Zaghaun Thornton (463, five). Also of note, senior Wade Ford has 6 1/2 sacks, while senior Kyle Sander leads Vanguard with 130 tackles.
Last playoff appearances: Springstead lost 30-7 to Gainesville in the second round in 2010; Vanguard lost 22-21 in the first round last year to Sunlake.
Rest of the football slate
7:30 p.m. Friday unless noted
6A: Hernando (6-4) at Gainesville (10-0)
5A: North Marion (5-5) at Pasco (10-0)
5A: Anclote (6-4) at Gainesville Eastside (5-5), Thursday