Clay Blue Devils (7-3) invade Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium to face HHS (7-2)

Hernando High junior Boston Tafelski (10) runs a keeper play against Springstead High. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
Springstead High’s Nathan Sims (2) scrambles while being pressured by Hernando High’s Jacob Butts (12) at Booster Stadium. Butts will make his first start along the offensive line Friday night against Clay. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

 

Nature Coast’s Fabian Burnett (9) tries to avoid the lunging tackle by Springstead’s, Max Gabbard IV. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
Nature Coast running back Willie Coffey (4) blasts through a tackle by Springstead High’s Ahmere Brunson. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
5A-II FOOTBALL

Eighth-seeded NCT (7-2)

travels three hours, 165 miles

to confront Baker Co. ’Cats (9-1)

By TONY CASTRO

HernandoSport.com

Any possible home field advantage will be on full display during Friday night’s Class 5A, Region II football quarterfinal playoffs.

The 5A-7 champion Hernando Leopards (7-2) are seeded third in 5A-II and will entertain the 5A-5 runner-up and sixth-seeded Green Cove Springs-Clay Blue Devils (7-3) behind a 7:30 p.m. kickoff at Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium in Brooksville.

Meanwhile, Hernando County’s other FHSAA playoff entry, eighth-seeded Nature Coast Technical (7-2), will be boarding school buses for its roughly three-hour, 165-mile trek from Brooksville to Glen St. Mary to confront No. 1 seeded and the red-hot Baker County Wildcats (9-1).

The survivor of Clay/HHS will square off against the winner between New Port Richey-River Ridge (7-3) at Zephyrhills (9-1) in the 5A-II semifinal on Nov. 17.

The survivor of NCT/Baker County will clash with the winner of Menendez (7-3) at Belleview (6-4) on Nov. 17.

Blue Devils at Leopards

Green Cove Springs-Clay Blue Devils

Friday’s tilt serves as the first-ever meeting between Clay and Hernando High in football.

The Blue Devils are making its fifth straight regional playoff appearance and have hoisted three regional titles across the past four seasons.

Since hoisting the 1967 Class “B” State Championship banner, the Clay County crew has been in the State Final 4 three times (2013, 2015, 2016) – all under current skipper Josh Hoekstra.

Lifetime, CHS arrives 19-14 in FHSAA playoff tilts.

By comparison, the Purple and Gold are returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 under Dwayne Mobley.

The Leopards – like the other four public school gridiron programs from Hernando County – have never reached the FHSAA Final Four.

Across 14 career playoff tilts, HHS is 2-12. The Leopards have dropped eight straight playoff games since its last win 20 years ago under Bill Browning over Inverness-Citrus, 35-18.

Offensively, CHS enters averaging 39.2 points per game while yielding almost 21.0 ppg.

The Leopards enter averaging 39.0, but its defense is permitting 10.2 ppg.

Perhaps the biggest difference is the strength of schedules.

Clay has faced six winning teams – going .500 at 3-3 – as its opponents are a combined 50-47 or .515 percent.

By comparison, HHS has faced four winning teams – going .500 at 2-2 – while its opponents are a combined 37-49 (43 percent).

Of Clay’s 57-member roster, 25 are seniors including 6-foot-3, 170-pound quarterback Caleb Eason.

Eason is the driving force for an offense averaging 438 offensive yards per game, highlighted by 296 yards of real estate per tilt.

Eason is not a running threat with 26 net rushing yards in 10 games, but through the air has connected on 87-of-139 passes (63 percent) for 1,418 yards and a stunning 24 touchdowns against one interception. His QB rating is a stellar 133.3.

Eason’s two favorite targets include 5-foot-10, 181-pound junior Spencer Lesage (38 receptions, 557 yards, 6 TDs) and 6-foot-2, 200-pound senior Ajay Belanger ( 35 reps., 659 yds., 11 TDs), who haven’t missed a game this season.

Aundre Carter, a senior listed at 5-foot-11, 233 pounds, is the lead bulldozer in the backfield. Carter’s carried 166 times for a team-best 1,613 yards, seven 100+ rushing efforts and a team-leading 16 rushing scores.

He‘s not alone.

Junior Cedric Brown at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds has toted the rock 84 times for 487 yards and four scores while senior Christian Swilley, at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, has added 63 carries for 422 yards and six TDs.

Defensively, CHS has allowed an alarming 21 points or more five times this season, losing thrice.

Senior free safety Raequan Williams at 6-foot, 195, leads the team in tackles per game at 7.9, highlighted by six tackles for a loss while senior Marcaun Robinson, at 5’10”, 205 pounds, is averaging 7.0 tackles per game.

Sophomore defensive end Josh Griffis at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds paces the Blue Devils in sacks with five.

As a defensive unit, CHS has forced 23 turnovers, recovering 17 fumbles. Robinson and senior Tony Lewis each have three recoveries.

The Leopards, by comparison, lead the county in turnover ratio with a plus-11 (just ahead of Springstead’s plus-10), highlighted by 15 interceptions.

On special teams, CHS’s two punters have averaged less than 32.0 yards per kick while lanky 5-foot-10, 140-pound Liz Fogarty has tallied 49 points behind 46-of-50 point-afters and one field goal (23 yards).

State of the Leopards

HHS closed the season dropping two of its last three to archrivals NCT and Springstead.

Head Coach Bill Vonada, in his 19th season overall and fourth with the Leopards, is not preoccupied following those in-county losses.

Bill Vonada                                                                                       Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

“Against Springstead, we got hit with some depth issues in the second half and we just shot ourselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers,” explained Vonada, who enters 2-4 lifetime in playoff tilts at Springstead.

“The kids were disappointed in the beginning of the week (after falling last Saturday, 31-24), but things have picked up,” added Vonada.

In facing Clay, “They have a rich tradition of football,” declared Vonada. “They’re a very well-balanced football team. They’re defensive stats are deceiving because they’ve played a lot of high-powered, spread-it-out teams. It’ll be interesting to see the two different styles of play on Friday.”

Based on the film study, Vonada assessed Eason, “Running is not his forte. But their running attack is solid. If you cheat stacking the box, he (Eason) will make you pay.

On the Humana-sized Carter, “He’s big and fast,” described Vonada. “He’s one of the better backs we’ll see. We’ve got to get him going sideways.

“You don’t put up the kinds of numbers Clay does without a solid O-line. We’ve got to control the football for a while and get them to play behind the chains.

“… Even on special teams, they’re fundamentally sound,” detailed Vonada.

On the personnel front, senior lineman Colin Pagels was not medically cleared to play and will not suit up. Neither will backup linebacker Harrison Carter.

David Hale Bronson

Junior slot back David Hale Bronson, a 2016 All-County selection, will be back in the starting lineup. He did not suit up against SHS.

Offensive tackle Jarquez Starks, who was injured at Springstead, is probable, reported Vonada.

Jacob Butts

In a revamped O-line, look for senior Collin Roberts to switch to left tackle and junior Jacob Hackney to occupy left guard instead of right guard. While senior Hayden Griffith remains at center, freshman William Bartz will make start at right guard and senior Jacob Butts will start at right tackle.

For Bartz and Butts, each will be starting for the first time along the pivotal O-line.

Coach Vonada believes playing within the friendly confines of Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium, is huge.

Bill Vonada

Thank goodness there’s no long bus ride involved,” reminded Coach Vonada. “We know Clay comes from a football fanatical area. We’re glad this game is here.”

“We still had to sell this game,” added the Leopards’ head man. “We can’t be satisfied for just being district champions. Let’s be happy for what we’ve done, enjoy the moment and take it to the next level, emphasized Vonada.

“… Winning this game is worth fighting for. Sometimes you get to this level, and guys take things for granted. We see this as an opportunity to do something amazing.”

Vonada didn’t avoid the keys to victory, “It’s gotta be a 48-minute game. We’ve gotta control the football with long possessions and restrict our penalties,” he indicated. “We can’t have missed assignments.

“…When we haven’t won, we’ve lost the turnover battle, so turnovers continue to be key.

“… For a lot of the guys, they haven’t been in this situation before, we can’t be in awe of the atmosphere, so we’ve got to start off well.”

Sharks at Wildcats

Glen St. Mary-Baker County Wildcats

Similar to the Blue Devils/Leopards, Friday night also marks the initial meeting between NCT and Baker County.

The Wildcats are making their 13th regional appearance and enter the game 6-12 lifetime.

Interestingly, the ’Cats have never reached the third round of the regional playoffs.

By comparison, the Sharks are 3-6 lifetime. Both teams finished 1-1 in last season’s 5A-II playoff scenario.

The Wildcats, who dropped its season-opener against 6A-4 St. Augustine, 31-14, enter riding a nine-game winning skein.

In the process, Baker County has faced six teams with winning records, going 5-1 overall.

On its strength of schedule, Baker County’s opponents are a combined 52-46 (53 percent) compared to NCT’s 35-52 slate (40 percent).

Of the ’Cats’ 38-member roster, 20 are seniors.

Baker County enters the playoffs averaging 31.0 points per game while yielding just over 16 ppg.

The Sharks, by comparison, are nearly a mirror image scoring almost 32.0 ppg, while yielding just under 17.0 ppg.

NCT’s veteran defensive coordinator Charles Liggett detailed the challenges of facing the Glen St. Mary-based gridders.

Charles Liggett

“They’re big and their fast. The old coach, Bobby Johns created a weightlifting program years ago there that has helped them produce big, strong kids,” said Liggett. “They don’t run a real complicated scheme. They’re not real flashy either. Against Clay (in a 31-24 win), they only threw five passes.”

Liggett expects the Wildcats to continue utilizing their pistol formation and run occasionally from an unbalanced “I” formation.

Cooper Hodges, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound offensive tackle and defensive end, is the pillar up front.

“Wherever he goes, so does the football,” described Liggett.

Senior and 5-foot-10, 176-pound running back Seth Page is “the real deal in the backfield.”

Mike Weston
Lenkel Smith

The Sharks, who haven’t played in 10 days, or since staving off Springstead behind Michael “Mike-Mike” Weston’s 11-yard touchdown run with 46 seconds remaining, 31-24, will play without injured sophomore Lenkel Smith for a second straight game.

Against Springstead, NCT rotated a combination of sophomore Mychal Shaw and senior Cameron Barber at Smith’s cornerback slot, revealed Liggett.

On the biggest challenge facing a Sharks’ defense that produced 15 turnovers, including 11 picks, “We’ve gotta keep their O-linemen from blowing us off the ball. We’ve gotta do what we do and make adjustments,” stressed Liggett. “Our D-line has gotta stand toe-to-toe and when we get a 1-on-1 tackle situation we’ve gotta make the tackle.”

Liggett insists the biggest advantage lies in the Wildcats’ home field edge.

“We’re entering a small town-type stadium, where everybody shows up. The three-hour bus ride is more of an issue than the playing up there.”

Dajour Morgan

NCT enters the game with junior Dajour Morgan ranked second in the local circuit in tackles with 94 followed by junior Corey Peterson ranked tied for fourth with 86 and senior Zack Powell with 85 tackles.

Zack Powell

Powell is coming off an outstanding 16-tackle effort against Springstead.

“At times against Springstead, we got the job done,” recalled Liggett. “In breaking down the last two games, I was more worried about Springstead and what they could do than Hernando. They (SHS) do a lot more with their packages. We knew playing the option would be tough.

“At this point our defense is what it is. If we give up three yards here and three yards there, it’ll be a long night. We can’t be pushed up field.”

By the Numbers: Hernando Leopards

FHSAA Playoff History (2-12 lifetime)

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

Bill Browning
 

YR

 

OPPONENT

 

SITE

 

RESULT

 

COACH

2012

Gainesville

Away

L 3-60

Mobley, Dwayne

2011

Gainesville

Home

L 14-20

Palmer, John

2010

Citra-North Marion

Away

L 21-35

Palmer, John

2005

Citra-North Marion

Away

L 10-61

Smith, Matt

2002

Wauchula-Hardee Co.

Away

L 7-28

Browning, Bill

2000

Titusville-Astronaut

Away

L 0-57

Browning, Bill

1999

Tampa-Jesuit

Away

L 18-39

Browning, Bill

1997

Citra-North Marion

Home

L 7-24

Browning, Bill

 

1997

 

Inverness-Citrus

 

Home

 

W 35-18

 

Browning, Bill

1995

Gainesville-Eastside

Away

L 7-33

Imhoff, Mike

1994

Bushnell-South Sumter

Away

L 7-26

Imhoff, Mike

1981

Gainesville-Buchholz

Away

L 2-14

Palmer, Dub

 

1981

 

Oviedo

 

Away

 

W 26-13

 

Palmer, Dub

1967

Cross City-Dixie County

Away

L 14-25

Thompson, Vince

 

TOTALS (14) (3)

 

171-453

 

-7-

By the Numbers: Nature Coast Technical Sharks

Playoff History (3-6 lifetime)

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

Justin Worden
 

YR

 

OPPONENT

 

SITE

 

RESULT

 

COACH

2016

River Ridge

Away

L 3-24

Worden, Justin

 

2016

 

Zephyrhills

 

Home

 

W 35-21

 

Worden, Justin

2015

Green Cove Spgs-Clay

Away

L 28-40

Worden, Justin

 

2015

 

River Ridge

 

Home

 

W 42-33

 

Worden, Justin

 

2015

 

Zephyrhills

 

Home

 

W 43-13

 

Worden, Justin

2009

Citra-North Marion

Away

L 22-34

Lee, Mark

2008

Williston

Home

L -FF

Joyner, Jamie

2007

Citra-North Marion

Away

L 13-34

Joyner, Jamie

2006

Williston

Home

L 12-26

Joyner, Jamie

 

TOTALS (9)

 

198-225

 

-3-

FF – Denotes forfeit loss due to FHSAA sanctions imposed on NCT after South Lake game.

By the Numbers: All-Time Hernando County

District Championship Football Teams

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

 

RK.

 

SCHOOL

 

YEARS

 

NO.

 

1.

Springstead

1993, 1996, 2012, 2013

4$

1.

Hernando

1981, 1997, 2011, 2017

4$

1.

Nature Coast Technical

2006, 2008, 2015, 2016

4$

4.

Central

1995, 2001, 2006

3

5.

Weeki Wachee

0

 

TOTALS

 

14

$ – Denotes Hernando County record.

By the Numbers: All-Time Hernando County

District Championship Football Teams by Coaches

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

Bill Vonada
 

RK.

 

COACH

 

SCHOOL(S)

 

YRS.

 

NO.

 

1.

 

Browning, Bill

 

SPG/HER

 

1993/1997

 

2

 

1.

 

Vonada, Bill*

 

SPG/HER

 

2012/2017

 

2

 

1.

 

Crognale, Steve

 

Central

 

1995/2001

 

2

 

1.

 

Worden, Justin

 

NCT

 

2015-16

 

2

 

1.

 

Joyner, Jamie

 

NCT

 

2006/2008

 

2

6.

Palmer, Dub

Hernando

1981

1

6.

McCoy, Pat

Springstead

1996

1

6.

Lohrey, Cliff

Central

2006

1

6.

Palmer, John

Hernando

2011

1

6.

Garofano, Mike*

Springstead

2013

1

* Denotes active Hernando County coach.

 

 

 

 

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