The Tarpon Springs Pirates defeated the Hernando County Hawks by a 38-14 margin at Hernando High Field on Saturday afternoon. This preseason contest between two Elite American Football League affiliated teams took place on a chilly and rainy afternoon in Brooksville. The Pirates have been playing football since the 2010 season and defeated the Texas Colts 26-23 earlier this month to take home the Florida Bowl Championship trophy. The Hawks’ organization, however, has only just begun. The matchup was a way for the home team to test the waters and gauge areas of improvement before their season starts in earnest next month. Despite the end result, Hernando Head Coach Eric Riggins, Sr. was pleased with the heart he saw from his squad.
“Being our first game, I expected the mistakes that we made,” Coach Riggins said. “It was good that we got a chance to see those mistakes. We got a good group of young guys. I think this game was good for them to see the speed of semi-pro. You know the good thing about it man… we never quit. That’s a good measuring stick that we didn’t quit. So, I’m proud of that. Yeah, I wouldn’t want to come out of here without coming out with a win, but it’s preseason, and we take our lumps and go back to work… I think, as a team, we played hard, man. We just got to get better.”
With his successful stint as the head coach of the now-defunct Brooksville Ballers, Coach Riggins knows what he needs to see from the players moving forward with their inaugural regular season fast approaching. Speaking of a man with a plan, Hernando’s Paul Vermeulen did an admirable job planning and organizing the event over what had to be a wild off-season for the general manager. There were tents from different partners, food trucks from various providers, and everything went off without a hitch. The only hitch: the result of the game.
The first quarter was a tightly contested affair. The Pirates kicked the ball short to begin the game, which put the Hawks in a great field position at midfield. One of the issues the neophyte semi-professional team dealt with all afternoon was turnovers, and it reared its head for the home team on a Quarterback Jordan Wright fumble on their first offensive play. The visitors would chip their way down the field until they turned the ball over on downs after a near interception in the endzone on 4th and 6. Two plays into the Hawks’ next drive, Wright would turn the ball over by way of an interception that was brought back to the home team’s 18-yard line. Coach Riggins’ defense would stand tall again, though, and force another turnover on downs in the redzone. After a first down, Hernando would be forced to punt it from the shadow of their own goalpost out to their 35. Another short field would result in a quick four-play drive for the Pirates ending with a handoff up the middle to the running back for the game’s first touchdown. The Hawks’ Eddie Pumarejo III would pick off Quarterback Devin Gallo on the two-point conversion attempt to keep the score at 6-0. The black and silver domed Hawks would use a good kickoff return by Jamaya Clemmons to set them up at their own 45. Roughing the passer and facemask penalties would help them down the field before Running Back Quinton Nicolas took a pass from Wright in the flat to the house with under 3 minutes left in the first quarter.
While the score would stay at 6-6 for the remainder of the first, that would not hold as the visitors in white and green would score quickly and take control in the second frame. On the first play of the quarter, Brandon Antonucci would catch a 34-yard pass on 4th and 9 in the endzone to score the touchdown for the Pirates. They would again fail to convert the two-point conversion, but the turnover bug would bite the home team again. After a couple of first downs, the Hawks’ running back fumbled, and Tarpon’s Colonel Cooper recovered it. Tarpon would march down the short field in seven plays, converting a fourth down in the process to score again by way of a Quarterback Eric Vitale pass with 7:59 before the half. The visitors would finally convert a two-point attempt with a pass over the middle to Ryan Henson to bring the score to 20-6, which is where it would stay until halftime.
The game would continue much in the same way after intermission. The Pirates received the ball and used a four-minute drive to put more distance between them and the home team. Early in the drive, Vitale was almost intercepted by Clemmons, but the defensive back was not able to hang on. Three plays later, Tarpon Springs would convert another fourth down before Antonucci would catch another touchdown pass to make the score 26-6. This is when the home team decided to swap out Wright for Quarterback Austin Webster. On the ensuing drive, the Hawks would immediately bust off a 35-yard run around the right side and make it as far as the Pirates’ 22 before turning the ball over on downs. While there would be more turnovers, that did not affect the score until 5:54 left in the final quarter when Tarpon’s Joseph Yuditski intercepted Wright’s pass and brought it back to the Hawks’ two-yard line. The visitors would proceed to punch it in on the next play. Hernando would respond on the very next play, too, with a kickoff return for a touchdown by Clemmons, and Nicolas would catch the two-point conversion to bring the score to 32-14. Tarpon Springs would eventually score a late touchdown by way of a long touchdown pass to bring the game to its final point total.
While there will be a handful of preseason bowls played between some of the 39 EAFL-affiliated teams, the league’s regular season will kick off on the 25th of February. The Hernando County Hawks will hope to reduce their number of turnovers when they open their inaugural season on the road against the Orlando Americans in late February. The Hawks’ first home matchup takes place the week after, as they will host the Bay Area Reapers in game two.