TONY CASTROEntering most postseason games, coaches typically suggest throwing the records out the window for a particularly intense meeting.
Published: November 16, 2012
Published: November 16, 2012
The implications are simple. It doesn't matter what the two team's won-lost slates are coming in; all that matters in the state playoffs is who will be able to survive and play another round.
Such is the scenario in the first-ever clash tonight at Spring Hill's Booster Stadium, during the Class 6A, Region II quarterfinals, between Ocala-Vanguard (5-5) and the host Springstead Eagles (9-1).
The victor will clash against the Hernando (6-4)/Gainesville (10-0) survivor in the regional semifinals next Friday. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
Not many fans look beyond the other team's record – especially against a program they've never seen before. Therein lays one of the hidden dangers.
Despite what would appear on the surface as a lackluster .500 mark, adroit prep fans realize the Marion County-based Knights are the favorites. There are numerous reasons.
Vanguard, the 6A-District 5 runner-up to Gainesville, has been there and done that.
Going back to the Jimmy Carter administration in 1977, Friday marks the 25th playoff game for the Knights.
For fourth-year Vanguard head coach Alex Castenada, his Knights are making their fourth straight regional appearance.
In fact, the Knights' fourth-year left tackle, 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior Aaron Decker, will be making his seventh regional start.
For the Eagles, it's their sixth regional appearance in 36 years.
Additionally, Springstead hasn't opened the playoffs at home in 16 years – or since 1996's one-and-done against Armwood, 24-7.
The Mariner Boulevard team's last home playoff game was against Lakeland-Lake Gibson's Matt Groethe-led squad in 2004, a 39-21 setback.
So it's easy to see why the experience angle belongs to VHS.
Another huge advantage lies in the strength of schedule.
Vanguard opened the season in Kingsland, Ga. – home of the current second-ranked team in the country: Camden County. The Knights lost, 53-7.
Next was a road trip to Citra-North Marion. The Colts entered the season with 12 straight playoff appearances. The Knights departed with a 20-6 taming of the Colts.
Three weeks later, Vanguard barely lost to the fifth-ranked team in the 6A Associated Press state poll, Lake City-Columbia (9-1), 28-20.
In October, Vanguard's fortunes slipped dropping back-to-back road tilts at Ocala-Trinity Catholic (35-14) and top-ranked Gainesville (34-19).
On paper, the Marion County squad concluded the season with three straight poundings over Lecanto (48-0), Citrus (35-18) and archrival Ocala-Forest (55-3).
Just before playing district-rival Citrus, a routine check by the Vanguard administration uncovered an ineligible athlete. As a result, the Knights had to forfeit their win against Lecanto.
Had the administrator not caught the mistake until after the Citrus game, the Golden Hurricanes would have also earned a forfeit win and a playoff berth against Springstead.
Through the Knights' first 10 games, their opponents have posted a collective 62-38 won-lost record (62 percent). Only Lake Weir and Forest finished the season with losing records.
The story is not the same with the Eagles.
By comparison, Springstead's opponents have posted a 47-53 won-lost slate (47 percent).
Interestingly, there is a huge twist regarding the cost involved with playing such a rugged schedule.
The Knights, according to Castenada "have paid the price with a difficult schedule" losing five starters due to injury en route to today's clash in Spring Hill.
By comparison, Springstead enters the playoffs with all hands on deck. Only wide receiver Brandon Geiger is not 100 percent and will not be starting – he'll be replaced by Garrett Carroll, who normally rotates with him at wide out.
Coach Castenada, who retired from teaching after 35 years in 2011-12, believes his quarterbacks over his 12-plus head coaching career have thrown for over 45,000 yards. His most famous pupil is ex-UCF and Minnesota Viking standout signal caller Daunte Culpepper.
Offensively, this year's Knights team has improved its production from 27.5 points per game to 29.5 this fall.
Despite the loss of 19 seniors from 2011, Vanguard arrives averaging 367 yards of offense per game.
Behind a sturdy O-line, the Knights have exhibited tremendous balance rushing the football for approximately 49 percent (1,783 yards) of their total offense (3,669 yards), while passing for nearly 51 percent of their total.
"They've certainly got some big, tough boys up front," noted Springstead head coach Bill Vonada, who enters 80-73 lifetime. "Any time you look at offensive success, you have to start there (O-line). If you're a throwing team you've got to have guys who can protect your quarterback. If you're a running team you have to have some smash-mouth people.
"We've played predominantly running teams and predominantly passing teams. They're (Vanguard) a little of both," described Vonada. "This will be a great, great test for our defense."
Though the Knights' leading rusher, Ty'ronte Files, suffered an ACL injury and is out for the remainder of the season – don't shed a tear.
The Knights will utilize a running back-by-committee approach against the Eagles.
Junior quarterback Adam Robles may be the difference in the game. The first-year starter arrives having completed 92-of-195 passes (47.1 percent), with 20 touchdown aerials against eight interceptions.
"You can't consider him a first-year starter because he's got 10 games under his belt and he's played well," noted Coach Castenada.
On defending Robles and his arsenal of weapons, "He's more of a drop-back passer," noted Springstead defensive coordinator Mike Garofano. "I got to see him firsthand last week when he threw six touchdown passes in a little more than a half of football.
"He's (Robles) pretty much the heart and soul of their offense," added Garofano. "He controls the game and the huddle. And he does a great job of getting the ball to his athletes – and they've got a ton of them out there."
By comparison, SHS arrives averaging 294 yards and 28 points per game. Only Pat McCoy's 1996 team, which averaged 28.9 points through 11 tilts, has averaged more points.
Springstead is the Hernando County leader in balanced offense, rushing for 69 percent of its total yards, while throwing for 31 percent.
To their credit, the fundamentally-sound Eagles have lost two fumbles in 401 rushing attempts. By comparison, Vanguard has lost eight fumbles in 277 attempts.
Of the 12 different backs to tote the mail this fall for the Eagles, junior quarterback Tyler Mahla (129 carries, 726 yards, nine touchdowns) and sophomore fullback Dan Wright (130 carries, 642 yards, eight touchdowns) rank 1-2.
Mahla, a 2011 All-County signal caller, has connected on 62-of-112 passes for a county-high 832 yards and seven touchdowns against six picks.
Springstead also enters as the least penalized team – averaging five flags per game – in Hernando County.
In 2011, the Vanguard defense permitted just over 12.1 points per game. A year later, the Knights have allowed just over 19 points per game.
During that time the team's 1-2 ranked tacklers have remained intact: senior linebackers Sandner and Marcus Davis.
Sandner, the middle linebacker, averages almost 14 tackles per game compared to outside compadre Davis' 10 per game.
"I can't say enough about them," stressed Coach Castenada. "Kyle Sandner is the best football player I've had over the past 2-3 years. He's like a (former Miami Dolphins All-Pro linebacker) Zach Thomas out there.
"Marcus (Davis) is a little bigger," added Castenada. "Both have tremendous speed and both guys don't miss many tackles."
As far as turnovers, Springstead has a huge advantage.
Vanguard enters with a plus-5 in the turnover ratio compared to the Eagles' plus-18. The biggest edge lies in the Eagle secondary that has swiped 17 passes. All-County senior cornerback Nick Bailey enters with a county-high seven interceptions.
Just as critical, the Eagle defense is also on a record pace.
Last year, Coach Garofano's defensive unit was torched for 40 touchdowns.
In a remarkable turnaround, Springstead enters Friday's playoff game allowing 10 touchdowns or 7.0 points per game.
Two-time All-County linebacker Luke McLeod, who notched 19 tackles against Nature Coast, enters as the county leader with 133 tackles.
"Hopefully, our quickness and how we get off the ball will be the key to our success," noted Coach Garofano. "It all starts up front. We've been real successful versus the run and no doubt it's because of our D-line."
On the keys to the game, Coach Castenada pointed toward the running game.
"What we have to try to do is make them do something they don't like doing," he indicated. "Something they're not comfortable with.
"They'll probably try to do the same thing to us. The main thing is we've got to stop the run. That means we have to be pretty good on run defense."
From the home sideline, "I feel like guys have learned a lesson (from the Nature Coast game)," declared Coach Vonada, who identified a lack of intensity against Nature Coast after locking up the district title the week before against Mitchell.
"In a game like this we have to play with the same high intensity we played against Sunlake and Hernando and every week leading up to the Nature Coast game. At this point that was the largest lesson learned. We can't take anything for granted."
This game will be carried live on WWJB 1450 AM and WXJB 99.9 FM, and streamed live at wwjb.com, beginning with the pregame show at 6:45 p.m.