When Hernando and Nature Coast sent their athletes to the University of North Florida’s Hodges Stadium for the Class 2A FHSAA Finals, the coaches would have already said their teams had met their goals.
What ensued next resulted in three medals for the Hernando County squads and pure jubilation for their coaches.
The Nature Coast Sharks came in with eyes dead set on medals, but as they would learn early on Saturday, sometimes the breaks just go against you.
On the girls side, the 4x800 team of Alyssa DeLigio, Crystal Burchhardt, Brianna Horn and Alexa Lacy was struck by the injury bug when Horn couldn't run due to injury.
“The girls ran hard with Brielle Perlingieri,” Lady Sharks coach Ed LaRose said. “They entered with the lowest-seeded time, but finished 14th and beat some teams they weren't supposed to have beat.”
Overall, LaRose was happy with how the season turned out and noted that the Lady Sharks were young and the experience would only benefit them in the future.
As for next year, LaRose said “You got to see the way cards fall, but ultimately we look for kids to better themselves.”
On the boys side of things, Wyatt Hessler battled through a hamstring injury from regionals and a rough performance in the 4x800, and it was a good moment noted head coach Ryan Wilson.
“Overall I think the boys looked fantastic.” Wilson said. “Wyatt didn’t run his best, but they gave everything they had.”
The team of Hessler, Kevin Ciccone, James Harkless, and Cody Van Natter finished 12th with a time of 8:23.48
The lone Shark medal went home with the 4x100 team of Matt Brieda, Frank Villaizan, DeShawn Smith and Jacquez Kincade, who posted a time of 42.37, good for sixth place and a new personal record.
It’s the second year in a row the Sharks earned a medal in that relay, taking eighth in 2012 with a team that also included Breida, Kincade and Villaizan.
Coming in Brieda found himself seeded 15th in the 100-meter dash, but missed qualifying for the finals by .02 seconds. His mark of 11.07 was good for 10th place.
Even a prepared skipper couldn't have predicted that two of her three athletes would bring back hardware.
“Today was a great day, we accomplished a lot more than we expected.” McCollough said. “We knew walking in we had chances. We went through our race plans, throwing plans, and our coaches went to bat all week long.”
Senior Ebone Plummer and sophomore Lauren Plaugher brought back medals for the Lady Leopards. Plummer finished sixth in the shot put totaling a distance of 37-1/4, and Plaugher took a shocking third place in the discus with a distance of 116-9.
“Lauren, wow, Lauren was the coup de grace.” said McCollough. “She walked in the door in 12th place and while her personal record was 113, she knew she needed a 115 to place.”
Plaugher stepped up for her third throw and uncorked a missle.
“Lauren hadn't touched a discus before last season.” McCollough said. “For her to go out there and finish third, it's just amazing.
“I had the meet of my life supporting the girls. This is my first trip of as a head coach, and I'm extremely emotional. I'm blessed to the nth power.”
The Lady Leopards’ other athlete, Jasha Patrick, finished 14th in the 400-meter dash, but there was a victory to be had before she even walked onto the track.
“Jasha accomplished her goals,” McCollough said. “She's disappointed, but this gave her more ammunition for next season.”
McCollough was convinced her team made history by just qualifying for states, which no Lady Leopard female track athlete had done since 2006.
“Credit to my amazing assistant coach Sarah Tooman,” McCollough said. “We did this together, and I can't wait until Monday when the rest of our team hears what these girls did. It will lift and motivate them.”
As for the future, McCollough didn't want to look far ahead but noted with a young team and higher expectations, the future couldn't be brighter.
“I tell my girls track is a year-long commitment,” McCollough said. “It's time to go back to work. Enjoy this but it's time to go back to work.”
Class 2A FHSAA Finals
46. Nature Coast (NCT) 3,
(Top eight score team points, earn medals)
4x800 – 12. Ciccone, Harkless, Van Natter, Hessler (NCT) 8:23.48
TJ – 15. Sampson (NCT) 40-02
100 – 10. Breida (NCT) 11.07
4x100 – 6. Breida, Villaizan, Smith, Kincade (NCT) 42.37
200 – 13. Villaizan (NCT) 22.39
26. Hernando (HER) 9, Nature Coast (NCT) NTS
(Top eight score team points, earn medals)
4x800 – 14. DeLigio, Burchhardt, Perlingieri, Lacy (NCT) 10:26.42
SP – 6. Plummer (HER) 37-00.25
DIS – 3. Plaugher (HER) 116-09
400 – 14. Patrick (HER) 1:00.35