By FRANK PASTOR
It's everything it promised: two evenly matched teams in a high-stakes, rivalry game.
It's nothing it promised: two squads with a combined 1-7 record in a matchup that doesn't mean as much as it could.
When Central plays Springstead tonight at Booster Stadium, the meeting will be rife with conference and district implications. But it won't decide the county championship. While Central (1-3) and Springstead (0-4) were watching each other, Hernando (2-2) sneaked in and stole the Ken Austin traveling trophy.
"I didn't think Hernando was really going to challenge," Central running back Tim Gaynor said. "But they obviously did."
Consider this, then, the consolation game.
"It's the biggest game of the year for us so far, no doubt about it," Central coach John Wilkinson said. "It's a money game and a pride game rolled up into one."
"Absolutely. There's no sense denying that," Springstead coach Bill Vonada said.
"It's a county game, so that's important -- all the football games are important -- but you have the added significance of it not just being a conference and county game, but a district game," he said.
It could have been more. Central, 7-3 a year ago, entered the season riding the momentum from its fifth playoff appearance in seven years. Springstead seemed on the cusp of challenging the Bears as the county's top team. Victories in their final five games gave the Eagles (6-4) their first winning season in four years.
Hernando, meanwhile, appeared to be recovering from injuries that greased the skids for a 3-7 season. But the Leopards took advantage of their superior speed to take down Springstead 28-22 in the opening week and upend Central 33-23 last Friday.
So much for expectations.
"Anything can happen during the season," Central junior guard/defensive lineman Wade Hampton said.
"You can lose a lot of players, injuries can plague the team, or -- just like this -- not playing to your best or just messing up. A lot of mistakes can really get you during the season."
Injuries and inexperience have held back both teams.
Springstead lost quarterback Brian Bolcar, wide receiver Jeff Hill, linebacker Dan Raddish, lineman Jeff Hess and the bulk of its secondary to graduation. Running back Justin Melnik was arrested in the offseason, and defensive backs Frank Conway and Jeff Sullivan and running back Joe Merando were injured.
Inexperience led to missed assignments on offense, poor tackling on defense and special-teams miscues, most prominent in lopsided losses to Crystal River (39-6) and Land O'Lakes (60-10).
Central has had to overcome injuries to Gaynor and linemen Mike Caldwell and Mike Gurske, and adjust to a new coach and offensive and defensive systems.
Wilkinson admitted he tried to implement too much of his system too quickly, and has cut back his game plan in recent weeks.
"Now that I look back, it's probably my fault, because I probably put in too much of the system right off instead of just baby steps," he said. "They still sometimes have to think a little bit."
When Wilkinson traded tapes with Vonada on Saturday, Wilkinson couldn't believe the resemblance between the teams.
"I think we're mirror images of each other," he said.
"We really are, because it seems whatever goes wrong for us, whenever we have a chance to make a play, something goes wrong. Whenever they have a chance to make a play, something goes wrong."
It's not too late for either team to change course.
Despite their early-season struggles, Central is 1-0 in Class 4A, District 6 and Springstead 0-1, meaning tonight's game could be pivotal in determining the district's two playoff berths.
For the players involved, that's all that matters
"The county championship doesn't mean anything unless you're district champs or you make it far in the playoffs," Hampton said. "That's how you tell if you're a strong football team or not.
"County champs? Yeah, it gets you pride and everything like that to know that you're the top dogs for the season. But when it comes down to the playoffs, that's where the real games start."
Frank Pastor can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1430.
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