SPRINGFIELD — After finishing 5-6 and earning a berth in the Class 2A playoffs a year ago, coach Ryan Serpas knew his Springfield High football team had a chance to be good.
But just how good was the question. The Bulldogs returned 19 starters, including all but one offensive starter.
Serpas refused to let his team take anything for granted. That attention to detail helped vault the Bulldogs (10-1) into the school’s first appearance in the quarterfinals this week.
“We only had four seniors last year and only two of those guys started, so we knew the nucleus of our team was coming back,” Serpas said. “We knew there was potential to be an outstanding team.
“So I harped on them all through the offseason. I told them we could look great on paper, but that it is another thing to do it on the field. They put in the work to make this happen.”
Springfield, the No. 4 playoff seed in Class 2A, hosts No. 21 Many (8-4) in a quarterfinal at 7 p.m. Friday.
Like most up-and-coming teams, the Bulldogs had their share of growing pains. At 2-0, Springfield stepped up in class to play 5A Live Oak. The 38-6 loss suffered on Sept. 21 could have been devastating. Instead, it was a motivating factor.
“We thought we should have played better than we did against Live Oak,” linebacker Tanner Wild said. “And we knew once we started district it would be like a new season, where everybody was 0-0. We got focused.”
Springfield has won eight straight games, including a 5-0 mark to claim the District 8-2A crown.
Wild and fellow linebacker Thomas Armstrong each have approximately 90 tackles to lead a defense that has proved to be a perfect complement to an option offense engineered by quarterback Shaquille Smith.
Smith has rushed for 820 yards and 17 touchdowns. Running back Ghermaine Ashton has a team-high 839 yards and four TDs despite missing four games with injuries. As the Bulldogs approach Many, also a run-oriented team with a Wing-T attack, Serpas continues to harp on his offense. Now the words are kinder ones.
“Turnovers killed us last year,” Serpas said. “We knew that was one area we needed to improve on if we wanted to be successful.
“I think we’re something like plus-15 on turnovers this year, which is a big improvement.
“Shaq and Ghermaine really started working together well at the end of last season. When they get going in the option, it’s a beautiful thing to see. When you run the triple option, you can’t be selfish. Both guys and our line understand their roles.”
Smith credits the Springfield offensive line that includes Campbell Palmer, Wade Wheat and Chris Carter for their efforts.
“The biggest change for us was as a team,” Smith said. “There were times last year when I felt like we were individuals out there playing. We went to a preseason camp this summer for three or four games and really bonded.
“We started hanging out together more. We learned about each other and learned to trust each other. I think you see that on the field.”
Springfield’s breakthrough performance came just a few weeks after that loss to LOHS. The Bulldogs ousted defending 8-2A champion Pope John Paul II, 34-24. Wild blocked a punt and returned it for a TD in that win.
“At first, we didn’t play up to our capabilities,” Serpas recalled. “But as the game went on you could see our confidence grow.
“Since then, our confidence has continued to grow. Sometimes, I think coaching is over-rated. When you have a good group of kids like we have, they make us as coaches look good.”
In Many, Springfield faces a team with several weapons. Sophomore quarterback Xavier Dias has completed 48 of 94 passes for 1,168 yards and 13 TDs. Cortez Sweet has run for 1,206 yards and 24 TDs.
“If we can use our offense to drive the ball, it will be big,” Serpas said. “On defense, we need to find a way to stop the run and take them out of their comfort zone.”
While a quarterfinal berth is something new for Springfield, Serpas and the Bulldogs believe they have found their comfort zone.