Key defeats and a poor showing in the spring jamboree motivate a talented group.
By GREG AUMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2001
BROOKSVILLE -- Three years ago, a large senior class meant big things for Central: a sweep of county rivals, a school-record eight wins and a trip to the state playoffs.
The numbers are there again this fall. The roster includes 18 seniors -- more than the past two seasons combined -- but coach Steve Crognale has warned upperclassmen that if they expect to win on experience alone, they'll leave campus as Most Likely to be Disappointed.
"This year, the thing you have to fight is people saying, 'You wait 'til that group's a bunch of seniors,"' he said. "You've got to be focused and play hard and not expect things to happen because it's your third year with the varsity."
The same class that toiled through a 4-6 season as sophomores got a taste of the playoffs last year. The group now includes five starters on the offensive line. What last year's senior class lacked in quantity it made up for in leaders such as Jerry Daniels and Lance Holland, who accepted scholarships to Bethune-Cookman. Daniels led the county with an average of 9.9 yards per carry, rushing for 810 yards and nine touchdowns.
Crognale hopes to find some of that big-play potential in junior Tim Gaynor, who is the county's top returning rusher after totaling 701 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore.
"I think Timmy can do it," he said. "There's no doubt about it. We're counting on him. But we have some other kids back there with some experience."
The rest of the Bears' three-back set looks to be junior Steve Martin and senior Jamie McElfresh, who combined for 320 yards and four scores in mop-up work last year. Martin missed spring drills recovering from a knee injury but is expected to compete at full strength.
Seniors Chase Evans and Todd Joa, who have shined as two-year starters at defensive back, will battle for the starting quarterback job.
Defensively, the Bears will shift senior Willie Winslett Jr. from defensive line to middle linebacker, where he can showcase the athleticism that made him the county's top rebounder in basketball last season. Crognale could have three new starters on the defensive line, which will sorely miss Holland's 18 sacks from last season.
Central's success will be determined by a four-game homestand that begins with Hernando on Sept. 21, followed by Springstead, Crystal River and Land O'Lakes. That's three playoff teams in a month's time, and Crognale said his team isn't radically better at home than on the road.
The biggest challenge was deciding which of the four would serve as the Bears' Homecoming opponent, traditionally reserved for a cream puff. After much thought, Crognale opted for Crystal River.
"You don't want to upset any district rivals by saying, 'All right, you're our Homecoming game,"' he said. "They don't need any extra motivation."
As for his own team's motivation, Crognale recalls that the '98 Bears were coming off a 3-7 season. This year's squad went 7-4 a season ago, but lost enough key games -- and looked bad enough in the spring jamboree -- that they're not short on reasons to get fired up.
"We probably beat the teams that we should have beaten, but we lost to three teams that are our big three: Hernando, South Sumter and Crystal River," Crognale said. "And I hope to God our poor showing in the jamboree motivated us."
COLORS: Blue and silver
CLASS: Class 4A, District 6
PLAYOFF HISTORY: 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000
LAST APPEARANCE: Lost to Jefferson 35-3
HEAD COACH: Steve Crognale
ASSISTANTS: Mike Ellison, Mark Griffith, Rick Munford, Mike Ralph, Larry Rivers, Vernon Turner
DIRECTIONS BEARS DEN: From S.R. 50 east of U.S. 19 and west of Brooksville, turn north on Sunshine Grove Road. Complex is 1 mile on the right.