Hernando semipro squad realizes SSFL title dream

Kicker Frank Berardi's last-second field goal lifts the Eagles over Miami for Rice Bowl championship.

Published May 3, 2005

ORLANDO - Hernando Eagles owner Abraham Dowdell was all smiles, hugging and congratulating all kinds of people wearing green Saturday afternoon in the Citrus Bowl.

Dowdell, a receiver for the semipro team, celebrated after Hernando captured its first Rice Bowl title by defeating the Miami Magic City Bulls 17-15.

Four years of waiting for the crown in the Southern States Football League's version of the Super Bowl ended when kicker Frank Berardi booted a last-second 35-yard field goal to cap a 12-2 season.

Hernando trailed 15-14 with less than 2 minutes remaining. In years past, the Eagles would have been saddled with a loss, but this Brooksville squad was not going to be denied.

"It was great, especially with the game coming down to the last seconds," Dowdell said.

"That was true class for our team," he said. "These guys made a few key plays. The offense hadn't moved the ball as much today."

The owner didn't lose faith.

"I was thinking there are four quarters. We have time," Dowdell said.

Hernando head coach Ernest Givins won his seventh league crown. "He delivers," Dowdell said. "Anything he touches turns to gold. He did it."

The Eagles led 14-0 until Miami scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns. Dowdell said the defense got tired because the offense had the unit on the field for so long.

The club, nevertheless, worked together to pull out a victory over an opponent that was unbeaten in 13 games.

"We went from 2-8 to 5-5 to 9-2 to 12-2," Dowdell said. "That's their (Bulls') first loss.

"In the 2-8 season, we were one of those teams that didn't know how to play in the fourth quarter. We had four years of bonding, and we finally know how to win in the fourth quarter."

Hernando struggled offensively, recording just 40 yards on 21 carries and 66 yards on 4 of 18 passing.

Eagles defensive backs Mario Mills and Al Washington produced interceptions returned for TDs. Washington, the game's defensive most valuable player, also recovered a fumble.

Mills picked off a Damien Yates pass at midfield, running it back 50 yards for his touchdown. Berardi kicked the extra point, and Hernando led 7-0 with 13:10 left in the second quarter.

The Eagles prevented a possible Miami score in the second quarter when Washington made his fumble recovery at the Hernando 22-yard line.

Willie Mason blocked a 34-yard

Bulls field-goal attempt with 6 minutes to play in the third quarter. Then Washington made it appear the game was over after taking his interception return 45 yards for a score with 8:03 remaining in the fourth quarter.

But Miami reached the end zone at the 4:13 mark when Yates ran in from 8 yards. Sebastian Rojas booted the point after.

Givins said the season was a struggle but that he's proud Hernando was able to triumph in the end.

"We have been fighting all year," the SSFL coach of the year said. "Defense wins championships. I have to give it to the defense. They made turnovers. They created good field positions for us.

"This was the hardest championship," he said. "I had a lot of fun. They came together, and they won together."

Hernando players Chris Williams, Joe Maner, Willie Mills, Washington, Jerome Tillman, Brandon Valenca, Terrance Clark, Joseph Mount and Henry Quinones were selected for the league's all-star team.