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Hernando Christian

Girls Basketball

Published:   |   Updated: March 7, 2013 at 04:00 PM

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Over the past two decades worth of Hernando County girls basketball seasons, several programs have enjoyed various periods of success.

Hernando earned nine straight regional appearances from 1994-2002, collecting 10 victories and a trip to the Final Four in the process.

Nature Coast went to regionals in each of its first six chances, 2004-09, and made it to the Sweet 16 four times. The Lady Sharks returned to prominence last season with their fifth district championship.

Central has three trips to regionals to its credit, 2003 and 2010-11, and even Hernando Christian Academy has gone twice, 2008 and 2012.

But with district tournaments taking place this week, a 19-year streak of at least one county team advancing out of them appears in serious peril.

None of the six local teams enter postseason play sporting a winning record. All would be lower seeds should they reach their respective district semifinals.

If the county is to avoid going without a regional representative for the first time since 1993, some upsets are in need of brewing.

Nature Coast will play host to the Class 5A, District 7 Tournament, starting Tuesday with a pair of first-round contests.

Hernando, seeded sixth in the six-team district, takes on No. 3 Tavares at 6 p.m., with the winner advancing to face second seed Dunnellon Wednesday at 6 p.m.

The fourth-seeded Lady Sharks begin their title defense by facing fifth-seeded Eustis at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. That winner will tangle with top seed Crystal River Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

The championship game is scheduled for Friday at 7 p.m.

"I think going into it, our goal is once again to be district champions," Nature Coast head coach Emily Gore said. "It'd be special for this year's group to go back-to-back.

"It's been a rocky road, but we still have the mindset of the same goal, to be district champions."

This has certainly been a much different team than the senior-laden squad that captured last year's 5A-7 crown.

After a respectable 7-3 start, the Lady Sharks (10-14) have only collected three wins. One of them came Jan. 15, 43-40 at home over Eustis.

Earlier in the season, Nature Coast pulled out a 51-48 victory on the road over the Lady Panthers, and the Lady Sharks also won their first meetings with Crystal River and Tavares.

So the record doesn't tell the whole story about this up-and-down Nature Coast club.

"I think we've lost some really close games, which can be frustrating. But we're competing every night. There are positive things we can build on," Gore said. "I think (the recent skid) was a combination of some different thing. We're a young group overall.

"We weren't killing teams; we weren't winning by double digits. We were barely scrapping by. Some of those games that were close wins early in the season, turned into losses."

Gore also pointed to constant foul trouble as another key issue for the Lady Sharks to overcome.

Sophomore center Rita Jarque has been one consistent bright spot, averaging 12.1 points, 13.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks.

Nature Coast additionally received a boost over its past four games, with point guard Fatima Jones finally making her debut after sitting out due to academic ineligibility. So far the sophomore is averaging 18.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks in her limited action.

"She can defend, score, shoot from the outside, but she can also go to the rim," Gore said. "She brings an element to the team we didn't have.

"The girls have to understand their jobs, under their roles. They have to become smarter with game situations."

Likewise, Hernando (6-15) has had to learn on the fly. The Lady Leopards only managed to knock off one 5A-7 opponent this season – Nature Coast, three times including a matchup in the Hernando Holiday Classic.

Against Tavares, the results weren't pretty: losses of 50-34 on Dec. 4 and 53-13 on Jan. 11.

"They're a super athletic team," Hernando head coach Kevin Bittinger said of the Lady Bulldogs. "If we want to win that game, we've got to match their intensity, not be afraid to be aggressive and get after it a little bit."

While junior forward Arianna Tankersley (10.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.8 steals) has been solid, the rest of the team is still gaining experience.

Senior center Ebone Plummer, an All-County selection in 2011-12, has left the team for personal reasons.

"We look at it as we knew we'd be really young this year and we'd take our knocks on the chin and there'd be a learning curve," Bittinger said. "This team is getting better. I know the scores don't reflect that.

"They work ridiculously hard at practice. They work hard in the game. It might not pay off this year, but it will pay off."

Working in the favor of both county teams, aside from the short travel, is that 5A-7 lacks a true juggernaut.

"You never know what's going to happen. It's high school sports," Gore said. "It'll be who shows up and plays the best game every night. I don't think anyone is dominant and you say they're going to win."

"I think it's anybody's game, really," Bittinger said. "I know we always say that, but I really think this year more than ever the district is wide open. So you better come ready to play ball."

The 6A-6 Tournament will take place at Citrus, with the exception of one game: Tuesday's meeting between fourth-seeded Central and fifth-seeded Springstead.

Instead of traversing to Citrus County, the Lady Bears (10-13) host the Lady Eagles (8-15) at 7 p.m.

Whoever survives that clash has to find a way to solve No. 1 Ocala-West Port in Thursday's semifinals, at 6 p.m. The final is Friday at 7 p.m.

"Our expectations from the very beginning were to continue to improve, continue to get better at what we do," Springstead head coach George Bennett said. "Concentrate on what we do and try not to worry about anyone else.

"We know we're going to have to play well to beat (Central). They're well-coached, they've got a solid senior point guard (Rhy Venturella), they rebound the ball well, they have size. We're looking forward to the challenge."

Like Hernando and Nature Coast, these two rivals met three times thanks to the Hernando Holiday Classic.

The Lady Bears captured the first two clashes, 55-37 and 53-47. However, the first game Springstead played without standout forward Anna Poholek. That's a significant loss, considering Poholek averages 14.3 points, 10.7 boards, 2.1 steals and 1.2 blocks.

On Jan. 10, the Lady Eagles finally downed Central, 49-47, behind 20 points, 13 rebounds, three steals and two blocks by Poholek.

"Obviously when you beat a team you feel better the next time you play them," Bennett said. "But we're just feeling a growing confidence as a team.

"We've earned a couple of wins that before we haven't done. I felt both teams fought hard. Both teams gave a great effort and I felt like that (win over Central) was something that we earned. It felt good to win a game at the end instead of giving it away."

Sophomore forwards Christina Lewis (12.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.6 steals) and Evelyn Anderson (11.7 points, 1.2 steals) have been statistical leaders for the Lady Bears.

Add in senior center Lauren Grimsland (7.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.7 blocks) and Central has a formidable frontcourt.

"If we go out and execute and do the things we need to do, we'll be OK," Central head coach Penny Gressick said. "We gave up a lot of wide-open looks (in the last Springstead game). A lot of kids were hitting big shots for them that night. We've got to do something a little differently.

"We need to try to pound the ball in the paint as best we can and when the double and triple teams start coming, kick the ball out and people have to knock down shots."

No matter who comes out on top Tuesday, eliminating West Port will be an arduous task. The defending champion Wolf Pack hasn't missed out on regionals since 2002.

"We're pretty happy with the way all the chips fell," Gressick said. "At least we get to play Springstead, we play them here. And West Port got the one seed. We've been competitive against West Port, lost by two and 11.

"I want us to win on Tuesday and then go in on Thursday and leave it all out there, play as hard as we can. I know it'll be a competitive game, I'm just hoping we can come out on top."

HCA (4-13) starts off in the semifinals within the four-team 2A-8 Tournament, as the third seed going against second-seeded Tampa-Cambridge Christian.

That game happens Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Academy at the Lakes, with the winner going on to the championship tilt Friday at 7:30 p.m.

The Lady Lions, who are the reigning district runners-up, lost twice to Cambridge Christian, 51-15 and 19-13, within the space of four days this month.

In the first meeting, HCA was missing players in its initial game coming off Christmas break.

"I think this is one of those games that could go either way," HCA head coach Mike Drummond said. "If we go down there and play to our ability, play the kind of defense we played against Cambridge at their place (the second time), we've got a chance.

"But we've got to score some points. That's been our problem all year long."

Anything short of a repeat district title by Academy at the Lakes would qualify as an absolute stunner. The Lady Wildcats defeated the Lady Lions by a combined 156-8 in two games, and have throughly dominated all 2A-8 foes.

"The other three teams are playing for second place," Drummond said. "Our goal was to get to a semifinal where we weren't playing Academy at the Lakes. We've got ourselves in the position where we want to be in."

Weeki Wachee (5-17) plays in the 4A-6 Tournament at Ocala-Trinity Catholic. The fourth-seeded Lady Hornets faces fifth-seeded Umatilla, Tuesday at 6 p.m.

The winner plays No. 1 Trinity Catholic Friday at 7 p.m. and the final is set for Saturday at 7 p.m.

In their two regular-season battles with Umatilla, the Lady Hornets won 42-40 at home Dec. 11 and lost 53-27 on the road on Jan. 10.

"We know we can beat them," Weeki Wachee head coach Craig Witte said. "Our goal the last month and a half was to get our first district (tournament) win. That's what we're working on, that's what we're focusing on.

"We're a little bigger. They're (Umatilla) all guards. They pressured us a little more last game. If we take care of the ball and make our layups, we'll be in the game." (352) 544-5288

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