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Track and Field

Published:   |   Updated: March 7, 2013 at 04:19 PM

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From a team standpoint, the 2012 season in Hernando County belonged to Nature Coast.

On the boys side, the Sharks have claimed five straight county championships and won three district titles in that time, including last year's Class 2A, District 6 crown.

Finally the girls squad equaled their male counterparts, winning a county title for the second time and its first district championship.

With a new season just getting under way – rain washed away Wednesday's opening Early Bird Meet at Nature Coast – the question is, can anyone unseat the Sharks within the county and the district?

"Our numbers are high. The kids are working hard," Nature Coast boys coach Ryan Wilson said. "It's a well-rounded team this year, so hopefully we have the same results."

"I think we're still pretty strong," Lady Shark coach Ed LaRose said. "We lost some, but we've also got some studs returning.

"I think if we put things together, we can push for a district championship again."

If there is a common thread among the two Nature Coast teams, it's their strength in distance.

Both of the school's cross-country squads captured district titles, and the Lady Sharks won a regional championship, as the boys did the previous season.

Kevin Ciccone, James Harkless, Wyatt Hessler and Cody Van Natter are all key contributors among the male distance runners.

Harkless, a junior, had a particularly strong 2012 campaign, earning All-County honors while advancing all the way to states in the 1,600-meter race.

Junior Crystal Burchhardt, a returning All-County selection, is among the Lady Shark leaders in distance, along with Alyssa DeLigio, Brianna Horn, Brielle Perlingieri and Mary Thomson.

Also, the Lady Sharks have sophomore Bronte Cameron returning after reaching states in the 100 hurdles as a freshman, as well as the All-County high jumper, junior Zavana Schmit.

Briana Baugher, Ashley Chevalier and Alicia Gentz, part of a state-qualifying 4x100 relay last year, are back and will be joined by freshman Ashley Gentz to provide a solid core of sprinters.

In field events, the Nature Coast girls will have to replace three graduated state qualifiers (Amy Holmes and Mackenzie Medler in the triple jump, Courtney Liddle in the discus), but expectations are still high.

"I can't back down," LaRose said. "We've had a great boys team here, but we've never had a team repeat in districts. We've got great competition in our district.

"Last year we were more well-rounded. This year, we have studs and a lot of question marks. … We've got some young talent and we need to continue to develop."

The senior-heavy boys are well-stocked in sprints, as well. Matt Breida, Jacquez Kincade, Dominique Rawlins and Frank Villaizan, who combined to earn a state medal for an eighth-place showing in the 4x100 a year ago, remain on the roster.

"The distance kids, they're the ones that set the tone for us and they'll definitely carry the team," Wilson said. "The sprinters will be a lot better. They seem to be more of a unit and they push each other at practice every day. And hopefully these freshmen come through for us."

Additionally, senior Frank Sampson could have an important impact in jumping events. In a continuing trend, receiving steady contributions from field events will determine the Sharks' overall success in the state series.

"We're always looking to win," Wilson said. "We're hoping to go out and win the district. We're going to try new things. If we don't win every meet, that'll be OK because all that matters is at the end.

"Every year (the district) comes down to who is the healthiest. If our numbers stay the way they are, I think we've got a good chance of repeating."

While Springstead didn't have the team success of Nature Coast in 2012, the Eagles did boast the two Athletes of the Year, and both are still around.

Bobby Harris completed a breakout sophomore season by tying for second in the state in 3A in the high jump.

"He comes out the first day of practice (after missing early practices due to basketball) and jumps 6'8"," Springstead boys coach Brandon Wright said.

"Honestly, no pun intended, the sky is the limit for him. He's a phenomenal character kid, he works hard and he wants to be great at it.

"Obviously the number one goal is a state championship, and to make a name for himself, and he's already getting looks from a lot of colleges. I know that's on his radar."

Junior Wilena Little is a two-time state qualifier in the 200 and won county titles in four events (200, 100, 400 and long jump) last year.

A late-season hamstring injury clearly impacted her performance in the state series, leaving questions has to how much more she could have achieved.

"The bulb went off for her," Springstead girls coach Joel Myers said, pointing to her newfound commitment to weight training. "She's in the best shape of her life. She's really filled out. She's all muscle. I think she can be something special.

"We've just got to find where will be her best chance to medal. It's not if she's got a chance to medal, she's going to medal if she stays healthy."

Myers has other reasons to be excited. He may have his deepest team yet, capable of edging out Nature Coast for the county's top spot as the Lady Eagles did in 2011.

Sophomore Erin Blackwell and junior Ty'Rhonza Harris are a valuable "1-2 punch," said Myers, in distance events, and will be the backbone of both the 4x800 and 4x400 relays that typically define the Lady Eagles.

Blackwell was a county champion and a district champ in 3A-6, as well as a state qualifier in the 800 during her rookie prep season.

Angela Morton returns as the county's top female pole vaulter, and Springstead has several promising newcomers, mostly notably Amber Philpott, a freshman distance runner who missed cross-country season due to illness.

"We just go out and compete," Myers said. "We're looking to build depth. We won eight of the events in the county (meet) and lost by 50 points. We didn't get seconds or thirds. I said we need some girls to come through. We're going to get our share of firsts. It's whether we can get backup points. That's what Nature Coast did.

"We're going to try our best but we're also going to go to big meets. We need to run against Tampa schools. That's our region. We're not going to win any of those meets, but we need to run against good competition. My goal is to get some medals at states."

Springstead's boys will have to replace the graduated Thomas Watson, the 2011 Athlete of the Year and a three-time All-County selection.

A state qualifier in the 400 as a junior, Watson's departure will be felt most in that race and the Eagles' 4x400 that set a new school record (3:28.07) while collecting a county crown and later added a district title.

The rest of that team remains intact, Bernard Ndedi, Ricky Toth and Zackary Romblad.

Two other key seniors are All-County long jumper Abraham Paulding and one of the top pole vaulters in the county, Dylan Pendlebury.

"It's a big void to fill," Wright said of Watson's departure. "But I think for the most part we've got a good core; a lot of returnees.

"Our goal is still to try to bring back a county championship to Springstead High School. I don't see why we can't compete."

Hernando's boys finished second to Nature Coast in the county and 2A-6 last year.

Senior Tyrail Hawkins is the reigning county champion in the 100 and 200, and the Leopards sport a pair of quality throwers in junior Connor Foradas, a state qualifier in discus, and senior Darren Hambrick, the county's best in shot put.

Another senior, Quentin Adams, a 2011 state qualifier in the 100, will help Hawkins in sprints and the 4x100.

"You can't settle for less than a district championship as a team," Hernando boys coach Rodney Byrd said. "And we'll try to get some state qualifiers and state placers."

Other county teams are in rebuilding mode.

The Hernando girls will lean on a handful of seniors, such as All-County shot put thrower Ebone Plummer.

"We had so any people right on the cusp (of making states) last year, so we're looking to put the work in and break through," Hernando girls coach Shawanda McCullough said.

"We're also trying to continue to grow. I realize a lot of my athletes are juniors and seniors, so we're trying to build a foundation with our other athletes."

Third-year Weeki Wachee is still attempting to establish its team, but the Hornets have a three-time county champion and the first state qualifier in school history in any sport, senior pole vaulter Steven James.

"He knows what he's doing," new Weeki Wachee head coach Jon Malandrucco said. "He's got his head on straight and he's ready to go. Last week he was clearing some pretty high numbers. I feel he'll do very well."

Central has five seniors combined on its boys and girls squads, so the Bears are clearly experiencing a youth movement.

The boys are paced by senior Quadavis Battle, a state hopeful in the hurdles.

"As far as team goals, it'd be nice to compete but we know we don't really have the numbers," first-year Central boys coach Tyson Graham said. "For us, it's to be the best as individuals as we can be and the team will take care of itself."

The Lady Bears' 4x100 of Meagan Aldrich, Samantha Evans, Shanise Frazier and Nature Coast transfer Aysha McCants has its own state aspirations.

"We want to go to county and compete to the best of our ability," Central girls coach Jenn Adams said of her general season outlook. "I believe we have an all-around, well-balanced team." (352) 544-5288

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