Bernhardt: One last mile

As his Springstead boys basketball team made a seemingly improbable march toward the state title game in 2009, head coach Pat Kelly often repeated one particular saying.

It was a mantra he said he borrowed from Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin – though it was actually a paraphrase of the ending of the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, about the team having miles to go before it could sleep.

After 27 years of serving this county, Sunday’s edition marks the final mile for Hernando Today.

It began on Nov. 11, 1987, and on that day the sports pages included stories about a district cross country meet, overcrowded boat ramps in Hernando Beach, a Springstead-Lecanto football game and Hernando High’s star running back, Tyrone Woods.

Woods wasn’t a bad choice to be the first athlete ever featured by this paper. Following his graduation from Hernando in 1988, he went on to play professional baseball for 21 seasons before retiring in 2008.

Though he never reached the majors in this country, he did club 538 home runs over his career, achieving prominence in Japan where he was a three-time Home Run King and two-time RBI King. In 2011, he was inducted into the Hernando High Sports Hall of Fame.

The football recap that ran in the inaugural issue was penned by Ted Swing Jr., the paper’s original sports editor.

Aside from a brief foray into teaching at Springstead, during which he remained connected to Hernando Today as a correspondent, Swing held the sports editor title until his departure in 2003.

Still living in the area, Swing reflected back on those early days, before computer software became the means of laying out a newspaper, when photos were still taken on film and the county only had three public high schools.

“We were kind of cautious at first, but it was very well-received by the county, which was a very big thing for us,” Swing said. “I enjoyed it while it lasted. People in a little rural county like this appreciate it a lot more. Our bread and butter were youth sports and prep sports. It was kind of fun. You got to know the people and they appreciated it.

“For me, it was the youth leagues and seeing those kids grow up and evolve.”

Local youth leagues, such as Spring Hill Dixie Baseball and Softball, have grown to the point of competing for state and even World Series championships. But Swing remembers when they were just getting started, and the paper afforded them a platform to get the word out.

“It’s too bad for the county. I don’t know how it’s going to pan out,” Swing said of Hernando Today’s closing. “I think maybe, especially starting with the younger kids, it gave them motivation, made the marginally interested kids be a little more interested. I know coaches and parents and everybody appreciated the effort at that level.”

Looking back

Officially, my full-time tenure at Hernando Today began on Aug. 11, 2003. But I was first affiliated with the paper while attending Springstead in the late ‘90s, when Swing brought me on as a correspondent.

Neither of us could possibly know then that I would eventually be doing his job.

When I was hired as a staff sports reporter, I was 22 and fresh out of college. I had spent a couple months proving myself as a correspondent, mostly covering Dixie Baseball.

It was an unusual baptism by fire, or more accurately rainwater. I was assigned to cover a Dixie Baseball AAA Majors (ages 11-12) district tournament in Webster.

The facility had only one usable field for that age group, an issue exacerbated by a rough week of weather.

With little time before the state tournament, officials were forced to go to great lengths to squeeze in games, some of them going on well past midnight. Oh, and there was no press box. So I sat underneath a tent set up for the official scorer, exposed to high humidity while swatting away the legion of insects that all the moisture had attracted.

Obviously, the experience wasn’t a total loss. I got the job. I also met some good people, including the photographer who endured it all with me, Joe DiCristofalo, and a young man watching his brother play, named Danny Aiello.

Joe takes photos for us to this day, and Danny became one of our correspondents a few years ago, and even as they’ll no longer fulfill those roles I can still call them my friends.

So I’ve certainly gained more than a paycheck and professional experience at this gig.

When I started, Nature Coast Technical had just opened its doors and, for better or worse depending on who’s talking, irrevocably altered the county’s athletic landscape.

Those early days seem to generate particularly bitter feelings toward the magnet school, especially as some of its high-profile sports teams quickly began finding success.

Even now, Nature Coast versus any county school often generates a large crowd and electric atmosphere. The chant “N-C-what? N-C-T” was echoed by the Shark faithful, while the opposing team’s fans would respond by replacing the “T” with some unfriendly words.

I remember a Nature Coast-Springstead boys basketball game in December 2006, when both teams had risen to the top of the district, and the Sharks’ gym was so packed and boisterous that then baseball coach Dan Garofano’s announcing of the starters had an NBA feel. That contest lived up to its billing, with the Eagles pulling out an overtime triumph.

Five years later, the same schools met at Springstead for a huge volleyball match. The home crowd yelled “Over-rated!” at Nature Coast’s Tulane signee Courtney Liddle, who embraced the energy in the building and responded with a big night to lead the Lady Sharks to victory.

Covering games like that, this didn’t feel like work, and those soggy late nights at Webster were all worth it.

But it wasn’t all fun. The biggest story, hands down, while I’ve been here took place in 2008. Nature Coast was 9-0 in football, looking like a team capable of becoming the county’s first to advance to the Final Four.

Then the lights went out late in a game at Groveland-South Lake – literally. As darkness set in, benches cleared. In the end, both teams had to forfeit the remainder of their seasons, which meant the Sharks, having already won their district, couldn’t compete in the playoffs.

It was a story that had news outlets from here to Orlando converging on Nature Coast. I was there, in the hallways of the gym, as the players trudged out of the classroom where coaches had gathered them to inform them of the FHSAA’s final decision.

That was a dark day, no pun intended, for the school and the county. Over the years, the animosity toward Nature Coast has died down. That’s a good thing.

So, too, is the rise in postseason success around these parts. Not long ago, just getting there and winning a game seemed liked a massive accomplishment.

But after Springstead reached the boys basketball state championship game in 2009, Nature Coast followed by advancing to at least the Elite Eight in four of the past five years and the Final Four in 2012.

Nature Coast’s volleyball team went to two straight regional finals in 2010-11. Hernando baseball advanced that far four years in a row (2010-13) with a state semifinal appearance in 2011.

Springstead baseball went to the Elite Eight in 2013, as well, and later that calendar year so did its football squad, just as the Lady Eagles in 2012 and Hernando Lady Leopards the past two seasons did in softball.

Even in girls soccer, Nature Coast was a regional finalist in 2013, further proof that such postseason runs have become the norm rather than the exception.

None of that even takes into account the three consecutive state crowns won by Springstead wrestling from 2011-13.

There’s also been a noticeable uptick in high-level talent in this county. There seems to be multiple Division I signees every school year now, and it has been a pleasure following their athletic endeavors.

My last feature story at Hernando Today, which ran in Thursday’s edition, was on former Central basketball player Alex Ruoff. That wasn’t a random choice. He was one of the first athletes I wrote about extensively.

But there have been plenty more. Rae-Lynn Sheffield, Kyle Swanston, DuJuan Harris, Christian Arroyo, Tyler Bergantino, Raqurra Ishmar, Tikiera Relaford are just a few off the top of my head.

I still marvel at the drive and focus of Harris, or “Foxx” as everyone calls him. He won two state track championships his senior year, and was more upset about his two running events in which he failed to get out of prelims.

I couldn’t help but admire his determination, and was glad to see it pay off for him in the NFL.


This job has afforded me some wonderful opportunities. Thanks to Bronson Arroyo, I was able to cover a Major League Baseball game.

I got to write an article on my own father, Chris Bernhardt Sr., when he bowled a 300 game, and wish my mom, Lori Bernhardt, a Happy Mother’s Day while on the radio.

I got to work alongside one of my best friends, Derek LaRiviere of the Tampa Bay Times, on numerous occasions.

I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people, and the overwhelming majority of those experiences were positive ones.

Among all the coaches I’ve dealt with, I can probably count the number I haven’t gotten along with on one hand, and not need all my fingers. There’s no way I can thank them all individually for their cooperation and support, though certain things do stand out.

There’s my seventh-grade math teacher Bill Vonada, football coach at Springstead and now Hernando, so adept at conducting an interview he would leave quotes on my voicemail. I remember as a student, he had some lean years at Powell and Springstead, but he did things his way, focused on “building young men of character,” and still managed to build a winning program in the process.

Or there’s Ernie Chatman, a remarkable coach and a remarkable man with a remarkable memory that I’ve leaned on many times.

Julie and Wayne Withington’s commitment to keeping swimming alive in this county, as uphill a battle as it is, has always been admirable. So, too, are Mike Drummond’s tireless efforts running athletics at Hernando Christian Academy.

Then there’s Tim Sims, Hernando baseball coach and master of the coaching cliché. It starts on the bump. Short memories for a long time. Players win, coaches lose. But you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who better represents the epitome of a great mentor or advocate for his community.

I could go on and on, and I sincerely apologize to anyone I left out. I could also speak volumes about my wonderful coworkers and colleagues over the years, but there are far too many to name them all individually.

We’ve had hard-working sports correspondents such as Marty Miller, Jim Redmile, Alice Herden, Tim Neddy and the aforementioned Danny Aiello who each made valuable contributions for little monetary gain.

Don Brown, our graphics editor, has done such a spectacular job making things like our All-County teams and football previews visually stunning.

But I have to reserve some space to talk about the two guys with whom I have been professionally tethered these past 11 years.

As I mentioned before, I met Joe DiCristofalo in Webster. Like me he had just caught on with Hernando Today and thus we have essentially grown up together within the business.

For nearly 12 years, Joe has quite simply made us all look good. His award-winning photography has defined Hernando Today sports as much as anything.

Without Joe, I’m not sure how we could have survived. It has been many years since the sports department had access to a staff photographer and so we’ve had to lean heavily on Joe, who is a correspondent that doesn’t do this for a living but rather his enjoyment of the craft and the people.

If Joe can make it, he’s there, which is saying something considering he already has to juggle his own business and family. Words cannot express the gratitude I have for all that he’s done.

Finally, there is Tony Castro, the man who hired me back in 2003, served as sports editor for eight years until 2011, and has continued on as a correspondent ever since.

There is nobody with a greater passion for Hernando County sports than Tony, and likely no one who knows more about its history. He has exhibited an unflappable work ethic and commitment to chronicling the tales of local athletes to the fullest extent possible.

I thank Tony for giving me an opportunity at Hernando Today when I was a green college grad hoping to work in my hometown, just as I thank Ted Swing for doing the same when I was just a kid with a dream of becoming a sports writer.

It has been my honor and privilege to play a small role in this community I’ve called home for the past 28 years. I hope to keep doing so in some capacity moving forward, but time will tell what the future holds for me. I thank everyone for the kind words of support this past month.

As for Hernando Today, sadly the end has arrived. So I think back to Pat Kelly and those words that he spoke.

Indeed, the zero-mile marker is upon us, the time to lie this all to rest, leaving just two things left to say.

Good bye. And good night.

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