The Springstead Eagles (7-4) traveled to take on the Wiregrass Ranch Bulls (9-2) on Friday night. The Bulls ran past the Eagles in the second half in a lopsided 45-27 victory in Wesley Chapel. The regional quarterfinal was part of the 2023 FHSAA Football State Championships – 4 S Tournament. Like last year’s pair of losses to the Mitchell Mustangs, the Eagles fell to the Bulls twice this season. After dropping their September matchup with Wiregrass by a 52-45 margin, it would be intriguing to see what adjustments Coach Michael Garofano’s squad was going to implement in this road playoff game.
“We thought that the pass would be there because I figured they were going to key on [Junior RB Connor Mccazzio], which they did and had seven in the box,” Coach Garofano said. “If they have that, then we got to be able to throw it. We threw it well at times, but not consistent enough. A couple things like the touchdown pass [to Senior Michael Rizzuto] that we threw, that was kind of like an install for this game.”
The game looked promising from the outset for the visitors as Junior Dalton Williams intercepted a pass by Senior QB Luke Knight in the red zone. Much of the first quarter would go the home team’s way, though, as they jumped out to a 10-0 lead following a pair of scoring drives. Then, the Eagles swung the momentum their way in a hurry. Despite starting their second of three drives from inside their own 20, Coach Garofano and company would quickly parlay the poor field position into a 2-play drive highlighted by a 78-yard touchdown pass. After Junior QB Gio Martinez completed the scoring toss to WR Tyree Davis, the visitors’ defense nabbed their second pick of the game on the first play of the Bulls’ ensuing drive.
Trailing by only a field goal, starting their drive on the Bull’s 36 yard line, and having the momentum firmly in their corner, Springstead seemed poised to make this a heavyweight matchup like before. Then, Wiregrass’s defense stood up and wrestled the momentum right back from the Red, White, and Blue. Senior DE Khalial Buckenroth broke through the line and sacked Martinez for a loss of 4 yards and the Eagles could not get back on schedule. They were forced to punt after a three and out and the Bulls would make them pay with a heavy dose of Junior RB Ian Wilson II. Wiregrass put the ball in the junior’s hands on 6 out of 10 plays on the ensuing drive and he racked up 48 yards to set up the early second quarter touchdown.
On first down at the Eagles’ 25 yard line, Knight faked the option to the right and quickly tossed a shovel pass to Senior WR Isaiah Riggins who sliced speedily to the left side of the field and scampered into the endzone to give the home team a 10 point lead. The deficit would never get closer than this for the rest of the evening despite the Eagles nabbing a trio of interceptions and blocking a Bulls’ punt. The visitors would get one more shot at cutting the Bulls lead to a field goal later in the third quarter, but they could not finish the drive.
“The big back-breaker – what was it, 24-14, and we were going to punch it in, get stopped on the one,” Coach Garofano said. “They turn around and score to make it 31-14… Offensively, we didn’t play as well as we did last time. We didn’t move the ball very well. We didn’t move the box very well, couldn’t get Connor going. So, we had to throw the ball, which was fine, but couldn’t sustain drives long enough to keep their offense off the field.”
Despite their struggles offensively on Friday night, the third quarter drive by the Eagles was their longest sustained drive of the evening. Totaling 14 plays across 6:38 of game time, Springstead converted two fourth downs and marched nearly 70 yards before being turned away on fourth down at the one yard line. The 10-point deficit quickly ballooned four plays later following an 86-yard touchdown pass to Riggins for his third touchdown on the night. The quick score started to put the game out of reach late in the third as the Bulls continued to pull away in the fourth quarter.
Looking ahead to next week, Wiregrass Ranch will travel to take on the Lake Minneola Hawks (8-3) in the regional semifinals next Friday at 7:30. With the loss, the Eagles’ season is done, but now they can begin to pivot towards next year. With “really good talent coming back” including Davis and Mccazzio, Coach Garofano feels next year’s senior squad could lead them back to the playoffs if “they come in with the mentality and work hard in the offseason.”
Wiregrass’s Isaiah Riggins would break the Pasco County record for most receiving yards in a season on a 79-yard double pass play from Senior WR Fred Adams in the second quarter. The receiver broke Land O’Lakes WR Logan Payne’s record of 1,251 yards set in 2002.