Central High School
Year in Review
By Chris Bernhardt | Hernando TodaySome celebrated. Some said goodbye. Some did both.
Published: December 29, 2012
Published: December 29, 2012
For Hernando County, 2012 was devoid of any major athletic controversies. So as the countdown to 2013 closes in on zero, looking back on the year that was allows for reflecting on accomplishments, and at those that decided to walk away.
Here are the five most captivating local sports stories of this past calendar year, encompassing both the end of the 2011-12 school year plus the first half of the current one.
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Leopards.
When a team advances to the Final Four for the first time in over four decades, then graduates six multi-time All-County selections, a decline seems evitable.
But Hernando High's baseball team decided to go in a different direction.
Instead the Leopards nearly duplicated their performance from the previous season, and advanced to the Elite Eight for the third straight year.
Hernando overcame losing the Class 5A, District 7 crown, winning twice on the road in regionals before falling at Green Cove Springs-Clay, 4-2, in the 5A-Region II final.
"I really felt, because of the makeup of these guys, this was going to be a better team," Leopard head coach Tim Sims said the night his team defeated Tavares in the 5A-II semifinals.
"We had a lot of alpha personalities on the team last year and I love every one of them. This group, everybody has defined their roles and they play it."
Not that Hernando lacked star power. Shortstop Christian Arroyo and pitcher/center fielder Brandon Lawson each verbally committed to Division I programs during the season.
Last month, the two seniors made things official, Arroyo signing with the University of Florida and Lawson, the Hernando Today Player of the Year, inking with USF.
During the summer, Arroyo earned tournament MVP honors playing for Team USA in the XXV IBAF 18U Baseball World Championship in Seoul, South Korea.
"It was truly an honor to be chosen to Team USA," Arroyo said back in September. "Winning with Team USA across my chest was the coolest thing I've ever done."
Two failed tries to move beyond the Elite Eight left a bitter taste in the Sharks' mouths. A lineup full of seniors added a significant sense of urgency.
In the swan song of what could be dubbed the Tyler Bergantino Era in Nature Coast boys basketball, the Sharks finally reached The Lakeland Center for the state finals.
With the 6-foot-9 Bergantino, now playing for UMass, literally at the center of it all, Nature Coast furthered its county record with a third consecutive trip to the regional finals.
Unlike the previous appearances, however, the Sharks came out on the winning end, soundly beating host Gainesville-Eastside, 52-39.
Nature Coast couldn't match the 2008-09 Springstead club that made it to the state championship tilt, going down to Jacksonville-Terry Parker in the state semis, 74-49.
Nevertheless, those Sharks could feel good about how they concluded the most sustained run of success in county hoops history.
"It's definitely disappointing. With this team, we're a bunch of brothers. I want to play with them the rest of my life," Bergantino said following the Terry Parker loss. "It just (stinks) to have this be our last game.
"But at same time, we accomplished our goal. We did it, we accomplished our goal, and for Nature Coast that's a big deal."
Six years have past since DuJuan Harris last played football for Central High.
Yet the man known locally as "Foxx" certainly hasn't left the pigskin behind. In fact, his professional career is on the verge of takeoff – at least according to the reigning NFL MVP.
Just prior to the start of the regular season, the second-year running back out of Troy University was cut by both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers.
"I have a lot of NFL years left in me," Harris said in late September. "It's part of the whole waiting game. Some of the best guys have to go through it. It's not how you start; it's how you finish. I'm definitely looking forward to continuing my career. I know it's not the end."
Those words would eventually prove prophetic, though it wasn't until late October that he landed with another organization, signed to the Green Bay Packers' practice squad.
Working his way up to the active roster, he provided a jolt to the team's struggling rushing attack in a Dec. 9 Sunday Night Football contest against the Detroit Lions.
He ran seven times for 31 yards, including his first professional touchdown, a 14-yard jaunt in the fourth quarter that put Green Bay ahead en route to a 27-20 triumph.
Harris got a chance to take a "Lambeau Leap" after the score, then received praise from quarterback Aaron Rodgers after the game.
"DuJuan Harris, you know, he could be special down the road," Rodgers said in an on-field postgame interview with NBC.
In last Sunday's 55-7 win over Tennessee, Harris notched his second touchdown, and with the Packers headed to the playoffs next month, this story isn't finished quite yet.
"It's my dream, but it's also my job," Harris said a few weeks ago. "I feel like I'm not there yet. I'm here and everything is fine. But I want to be able to get my mother a new house, so she doesn't have to worry about much. Until I've done that, I won't feel like I did it.
"But it's a blessing every day waking up saying I'm an NFL player, and I'm helping my team win and try to make it to the Super Bowl."
Though it can be viewed as nothing more than a coincidence, 2012 saw several of the county's most-tenured headmen leaving their respective posts.
Springstead was hit particularly hard; wrestling head coach Eric Swensen, boys soccer head coach Sal Calabrese and football head coach Bill Vonada all resigned.
All three stepped down of their own volition, and each went out on top.
Swensen, in his eighth year, led the Eagles to a repeat 2A state championship on the mats.
However, Swensen announced in early August that he was departing as his wife had accepted a job in Minnesota and the family was relocating.
"I have had an incredible time over the past eight years and Springstead Wrestling has reached the pinnacle of high school wrestling success," Swensen wrote in an email confirming his exit. "I really believe that the success of this program was not because of me but because of WE."
Earlier in the summer, Calabrese declared his retirement from coaching after a total of 19 seasons guiding the Eagles' fortunes on the pitch.
The 2011-12 campaign was one of his finest. Springstead captured the 4A-4 title and even won a regional quarterfinal, finishing up 19-3 to give him a career mark of 228-135-39.
"It's just time," Calabrese said when he made his decision public. "I've been very fortunate to have coached some very good players.
"I certainly didn't do this for the money. Like most guys in my position I'm probably lucky to make a $1 an hour. I did this for the love of the game."
Finally, Vonada made the call to end his 15-year stint at the helm, on the heels of the Eagles going 9-2 and collecting the 6A-6 crown, their first district title since 1996.
He compiled an 80-74 mark, taking Springstead to the playoffs four times. He garnered a tremendous amount of respect around the area, for making the most out of limited personnel while establishing a disciplined culture within his program.
"I think our kids got more out of their ability than the average person," Vonada said. "But more than that, we concentrated on building young men of character. But it's not just about us making them better men. They're making us better men, as well."
Hernando also lost two stalwarts, starting with John Palmer's sudden resignation due to health problems after spring football.
In four seasons, the Leopard alumnus turned the staggering program around, taking them to the playoffs his final two years and a 6A-6 title in 2011.
"Our kids, most importantly, have worked extremely hard," Palmer said in May. "They bought into what the coaches and administration were telling them. Everyone involved pulled together in our school and helped revitalize our program."
Longtime wrestling coach Bill Combs Sr. left Hernando, as well, though he has resurfaced as an assistant coach at Springstead.
A Leopard mat mentor since 1978, Combs was inducted into the school's Sports Hall of Fame in October.
Team state championships are a rare feat in the annals of Hernando County's prep sports history. But back-to-back titles were completely unprecedented – until this year.
By repeating as 2A champs in wrestling, Springstead set a new local standard.
The Eagles additionally established a new county mark with eight state placers, three of whom collected state crowns, and pulled away from Lakeland-Lake Gibson by 79 points, 171.5-92.5.
Seniors Sean Redman (145 pounds), Cody Ross (152) and John Dreggors (285) each earned individual first-place honors, Ross doing so for the third year in a row.
Ross, a state runner-up as a freshman and the most accomplished grappler in county history, would eventually sign to compete for D-I North Carolina.
Josh Herrera (132), Conor Ross (170) and Thomas Gupton (195) were state silver medalists. Jordan Rivera placed third at 126 and Matt Landgraff took sixth at 106.
It would end up as the farewell to Swensen, since replaced by his assistant Sal Basile as the Eagles are currently seeking a state three-peat.
"It's hard to win one (state championship)," Swensen said at the end of the state meet in February. "Look how long it took for anyone from our county to break through. Winning twice is unbelievable. This (state championship) belongs to our kids."
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