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What are the building blocks to gridiron dominance? County schools offer their thoughts.

By Times Staff
Published August 25, 2006


Hernando County has a lot in common with the rest of the state.

Palm trees.

Waterfront property.

Senior citizens.

But when it comes to dominant football programs, the county is notoriously lacking.

No team from Hernando has ever won more than one game in the playoffs, let alone a state title. Area teams have won just four of the 18 postseason games they have played dating to 1973, and all 14 of their losses have been by double-digits.

The challenges facing area coaches have been well-documented. For most of its history, the county has been a small, rural area without any major industry. Its teachers are some of the lowest paid in the states. None of the county's five high schools have a true "feeder school" from which they draw their talent.

But at the front of every coach's mind, regardless of his circumstance, the same goal exists: build a program capable of winning.

Which begs the question. How?

CREATING A BRAND AT CENTRAL

Of any of the players on the roster at Central, junior wide receiver/defensive back Heath Heroux likely has the most accurate view of what a viable high school football program looks like. That's because Heroux played his first two seasons at Hillsborough County powerhouse Armwood, which won state titles in 2003 and 2004 before losing in the championship game to Ponte Vedra Beach Nease last year.

At Armwood, Heroux says, "football runs the school." Coach Sean Callahan is "on a pedestal." The players walk around "with an edge."

When Heroux was a sixth-grader, he says he decided he wanted to play football at Armwood.

"When you are coming from middle school, if you are going to play football, you are going to go to Armwood," said Heroux, who was zoned to attend Brandon High.

But unlike Hillsborough County, Hernando County doesn't have open school choice, meaning, for the most part, kids attend the schools in which they are zoned. Even if the county did have school choice, drawing students from all over Hernando (population 130,000) is different from drawing students from all over Hillsborough (population 1.1 million).

Still, a lot can be learned from looking at a successful program like Armwood, particularly when it comes to building a brand.

When Central coach Cliff Lohrey was growing up in Crystal River in the 1990s, the Pirates' football team was dominant, winning 110 games in 15 seasons under coach Earl Bramlett. That's a big contrast from the situation at Central, where the Bears have had three coaches in the past three years.

The most successful Hernando County teams have often come under long-time coaches. Of the eight winning seasons in Central's 18-year history, seven came under coaches Barry Gardner (five years at Central) or Steve Crognale (seven years). Pat McCoy (one year), Greg Bigham (one year), and John Wilkinson (three years) produced just one winning season among them.

According to Lohrey, when a coach remains in place for an extended period of time, it creates a trickle-down effect:

* Extended success creates a brand-name team about which kids get excited.

* More kids want to play football for said school.

* Said kids begin preparing, mentally and physically, for success at said school at an earlier age.

In essence, that process helped Crystal River build its dynasty. Even in middle school, Lohrey knew what it took to play for the Pirates.

"It was one of those things where summer was voluntary, but it was involuntary voluntary: If you weren't there, you were sliding further and further down the depth chart," Lohrey said. "But that wasn't something that he outlined on paper. It was just known."

That mind-set helped make Lohrey, who played for the Pirates from 1992-95, a two-year starter at linebacker, despite the fact that he was just 5-foot-3, 150 pounds as a senior.

"When you have a good program like we had at Crystal River, it makes average players good, and good players even better," Lohrey said.

PLAYING THE SYSTEM AT SPRINGSTEAD

Talk to Springstead coach Bill Vonada about football and he'll start evoking Lou Holtz and Joe Paterno and Bear Bryant. His philosophies, it seems, are built on the backs of slogans. It's what he shouts at his players and surely what he writes on chalkboards.

Call it cliche, but the Eagles eat it up. Since Vonada took over as coach during the 1998 season, Springstead has had its troubled times. It finished 0-10 in 1999, then followed that up with 3-7 campaign. But for the past three years, no team in the county has approached the success of the Eagles program. That's right, "program."

"When you play Springstead," Nature Coast coach Jamie Joyner said, "you're not really playing against the players. It's more like you're playing against the Springstead system, the program."

So how did the Springstead program go from winless in 1999 to three straight seasons of seven or more wins, two straight region playoff berths and a playoff win in 2004?

"I always say that as a coach," Vonada said, "if you want to build a program, you have to work with a sense of urgency and live with a sense of patience.

"When I took over as coach, we were shooting for a long-term consistent program. No shortcuts."

A shortcut might include playing "a really talented kid that's not buying into the team concept."

Vonada talked a lot about character building. Building a program with a tradition of hard work and integrity is how he put it.

"Do it right. Do it hard. And, do it together." That's Springstead's mantra.

Victor Schick, a senior running back, said kids entering Springstead's program bear an expectation. Not only an expectation to be a part of a winning team, but the expectation to "work like we're winners."

Springstead practices can often resemble army boot camps. Coaches are shouting, players are grimacing with facial expressions that look like they are near death - and the team leaders are out in front, either verbally exhorting their teammates or leading by example.

Vonada tries to deflect any personal attention or accolades for the school's recent success. But even he admitted that continuity helps. With this being his ninth season as head coach, making him easily the most tenured coach in Hernando County, Vonada says he benefits by not needing to "reinvent the wheel".

The processes are there. Assistant coaches know their roles. Summer training programs and operations have been in place for some time. Scheduling and protocols are known. There are fewer kinks to work out and less foreign territory to explore.

There is a status quo at Springstead now, one that is beginning to produce consistent winning, in spite of graduations, transfers and injuries.

Some might call that a program.

'BRICKS ON THE WALL' AT NATURE COAST

The first couple of seasons set the foundation for the young school. Now each subsequent season for the Sharks are building years.

"I tell the guys, they're like bricks on the wall," coach Jamie Joyner said. "We try to teach them that they are a part of something that is bigger than themselves."

Nature Coast is entering its fourth year of existence. The school, in general, is trying to build a tradition.

Within that mission lies Joyner's task of building a football program. There is no Sharks history. There is no Sharks lore.

Kids don't have parents and grandparents who went to Nature Coast. For Joyner and Nature Coast, it's a ground-up kind of thing.

One of the major tasks is instilling pride. Not individual pride, but team and school pride.

Joyner calls linebacker Jason Joens a "billboard for the program."

"He's not the most athletic or talented guy," said Joyner, "but over the past few years, you've seen him get better and buy into everything. He bought into the whole Nature Coast football thing."

At Springstead, the players "buy into" what Vonada preaches. Joyner expects the same from his players. Without it, he said, they won't grasp the concept of being a part of something bigger than themselves and you can't build the wall without the bricks.

NOTHING SET IN STONE AT HCA

Flexibility seems to be the key when your name is Steve Johnson and you are charged with building a private school program from scratch. Johnson, a former Tampa fireman Hernando Christian tapped three years ago to start its program, led the Lions to a 6-4 record last year.

The most obvious difference between HCA and the four public schools in the county is the talent level.

Thus Johnson was charged with developing an offense catered to the players available to him instead of vice versa.

"We not only wanted to start a program, but we wanted to compete," Johnson said. "So we sat down and looked at what we had and we tried to pick a system that fit the kids we had."

That system originally was the Wing-T, but it changes from year to year. This year, Johnson says, the Lions have no tailback, but two tight ends, a fact the offense will reflect.

The Lions also must adapt to the versatility of their athletes. Unlike some of the bigger schools, which can afford to have athletes who specialize, most of Hernando Christian's athletes play multiple sports. The kids who play football in the fall are the same kids who play basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.

When things like spring practice roll around - seven of the Lions' players were missing from spring workouts - flexibility is a necessity.

"I've always kind of related it to a carburetor," Johnson said. "You lean it out or rich it up based on what you've got and you try to make it run at peak performance."

DOING THE LITTLE THINGS AT HERNANDO

It starts from the top. That's what Hernando coach Matt Smith says. If football is just another extracurricular activity to keep kids out of trouble after school, it will never thrive. But if it is a focal point, a priority, a passion, it can succeed, even in a small town like Brooksville.

Players are important, no doubt. But in an area of the state that isn't as talent rich as places like Miami-Dade, Jacksonville and the Panhandle, the brunt of success falls on the administration and the coaching staff.

Last year, for example, Hernando funded and built a new weight room that linebacker Taylor Rotunda says is largely responsible for the Leopards success during this year's offseason conditioning program.

This year, Smith has added several coaches to his staff, including Bill Browning, who coached the Leopards for eight seasons before Smith took over in 2004. Together, the staff has placed an increased importance on the little things.

On the first day of preseason practice, Smith yelled at his players for jumping out of their stances too early during a series of sprints. Later, an assistant monitored one of the sidelines and singled out every player who did not touch it completely.

"That's something that we're really concentrating on this year," Smith said. "I can't speak for the other high schools, but for Hernando High School, it comes down to the little things. Everything that relates to football, we're trying to do it correctly."

One of the chief marks of a good program is its ability to focus all of its attention on what it can control.

County coaches can't control that the school system is set up in such a way that many kids who attend middle school together don't attend the same high school, making it impossible for their programs to have true "feeder" programs.

County coaches can't control the fact that, unlike other areas of the country, their schools don't offer a sports class during the school day in which athletes train together.

County coaches can't control the number of athletes that live in a given area.

But coaches can control the efficiency with which drills are run. And the attitude with which sprints are performed. And the level of sincerity with which offseason conditioning is treated.

This control - illusionary or not - keeps some coaches believing that, some day, a team might go where no team from Hernando County has ever gone before: deep into the playoffs.

"I think for sure it is possible," Smith said. "It's going to take 40 kids dedicated for all four years, a group of incoming freshmen who are dedicated to the weight room and pretty much are training 11, 12 months a year, conditioning in the offseason, getting them involved in the track program to work on speed. But also it comes down to attitude and chemistry.

"The bottom line, to have successful program you have to have 40 guys working together for the same goal."