Football teams come together for good cause

Photography by Alice Mary Herden

Dustin Kupcik admits, he didn’t really know Rob Mahler. Yet the Springstead athletic director felt a kinship with the former Hudson High head football coach that compelled him to act.
Last month, Mahler’s 1-year-old son Clayton was diagnosed with Stage 3 intermediate-risk embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a form of pediatric cancer. Mahler had stepped down in November after two seasons leading the Cobras. Four years ago, Kupcik’s sister Kasey went through her own battle with cancer.
“I heard what happened to Clayton. My sister was effected by cancer,” Kupcik said. “I know firsthand what it does to a family, mentally, emotionally, financially. I’m a dad, he’s a dad. I’m a coach, he’s a coach. We have that connection. It was eating at me, and I felt like I’ve got to do something.”
Fortuitously, Kupcik and Springstead had the perfect opportunity to bring the local football community together. FHSAA director of athletics Frank Beasley had contacted Kupcik about Springstead hosting a preseason event as part of a statewide training program for game officials.
Thus the 12-team Clash 4 Clayton, held on Saturday at Springstead, was born. Several prep squads from Hernando and Pasco counties had a chance to measure themselves against an opponent, referees gained some on-field experience and a crowd of 1,300 spectators received an early glimpse of what the upcoming season has to offer.
But what truly mattered: $3,000 was raised at the gate alone, all of it going to the Mahler family. That’s an impressive total considering FHSAA rules only allowed for a $2 entry fee, though donations were welcomed.
That doesn’t account for separate donations, such as $200 given by the West Central Officials Association, or funds raised by members of the Mahler family, who were in attendance selling wristbands and t-shirts.
“Coach upon coach was dropping in 20s, 50s, 100s,” Kupcik said. “It was great to see the coaching fraternity taking care of one of their own and doing what they can for Coach Mahler and his family.”
Kupcik was also effusive in his praise of several sponsors. Chick-fil-A and Gator’s Dockside provided food for the officials, Marco’s Pizza delivered pizzas for coaches and volunteers, i9 Sports donated water and cooling towels for the referees, and Sir Speedy covered all the printing and marketing.
“We wouldn’t be able to donate this money if those businesses didn’t donate their time and products,” Kupcik said.'

Nature Coast's Fabian Burnett attempts to shake off a tackle by a Sunlake defender on Saturday. Photo by Alice Mary Herden

As for the football, the teams played one quarter apiece, with action divided up between Booster Stadium and the adjacent practice field. Within the county, Springstead defeated Fivay (7-0), Hernando beat River Ridge (16-6), Nature Coast downed Sunlake (8-0) and Weeki Wachee fell to Wiregrass Ranch (13-0).
In the other two matchups, Bishop McLaughlin won over Gulf, 7-0, and Land O’ Lakes topped Hudson, 13-3.

Hernando's Ben Southall runs for a touchdown against River Ridge. Photo by Alice Mary Herden

Andrew Lynch, left, and Hunter Bower of Weeki Wachee attempt to wrap up a Wiregrass Ranch ball carrier on Saturday. Photo by Alice Mary Herden

“I was really happy with the event,” Kupcik said. “I wasn’t sure we’d get a great turnout. You never know, it’s the first time we’ve run this event. Considering all that, to be able to donate upward of $3,000 to the Mahler family, I think that’s a success. And I think about the community rallying around the event.
“Bottom line, it was an awesome event. It was a success for all the teams, it was a success for the county and it was a success for the Mahler family, as well. I thank everyone involved. It was a pleasure to be a part of.”
Kupcik added one more thought, the most crucial point of the day: “Get well, Clayton.”
To donate in support of Clayton’s fight, visit
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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