For the Nature Coast program, the moment of truth as arrived. From the very beginning, the Class 2A, District 6 Meet has been proverbial carrot at the end of the stick.
“It’s something we’ve talked about all the time,” Nature Coast boys coach Ryan Wilson said. “You need to stay even-keel or go on up.
“The first day of practice, we talked about a district championship and that’s what we’ve been working toward. I don’t think the kids take anything for granted, especially because we’re senior-dominated. So we’re all in.”
The boys have made winning at this level a tradition. Three times in the past five years they’ve raised a first-place district trophy.
One thing the Sharks haven’t done, however, is repeat. They stunned Tampa-Jesuit in 2008, then finished second to the Tigers in 2009. They returned to the top of the standings in 2010 before slipping to fourth in 2011.
Last year, Nature Coast cruised to the 2A-6 crown, scoring 200 points compared to Hernando in second with 114.
Tavares will host this season’s 2A-6 Meet today, starting with field events and the 4x800 at 1 p.m. Running prelims are set for 4 p.m., and finals are at either 7 p.m. or one hour after the conclusion of prelims.
Coming in, it appears likely the Sharks will finally make it back-to-back titles. They haven’t lost a meet all year and are less than a week removed from claiming their sixth consecutive county championship.
“Like every meet we go to, we’re looking to win it,” Wilson said. “Everybody is pretty healthy. They got a taste of top-notch competition (at the county meet). From here on out, they have to prepare themselves to the best of their ability.”
South Sumter, Wilson said, is “loaded all the way across the board” and should provide Nature Coast the stiffest challenge.
On March 1, those teams both attended the Bulldog Invitational hosted by Tavares, with the Sharks running away with the team title and the Raiders finishing sixth.
Wilson expects that his squad’s distance dominance will prove the difference, as it typically has throughout the season.
Then there’s the matter of advancing athletes to regionals. The top four in each event qualify for the 2A-Region II Meet April 18 at Jacksonville-Bolles.
“Hopefully someone from every running event should advance,” Wilson said. “The relay teams should advance, as well, if nothing goes wrong. Field events is wide open.”
Like their male counterparts, they had little trouble securing that victory, scoring 183 to easily outdistance South Sumter’s second-place total of 94.
Nature Coast’s girls had been rolling prior to the county meet last Friday, having captured their first six meets.
But turmoil struck the team unexpectedly. The top distance runners were held out of county in what Lady Sharks headman Ed LaRose would only call a coach’s decision.
That allowed Springstead to squeak out a three-point triumph that came down to the Lady Eagles taking the final race, the 4x400.
“We’re looking to get over it,” LaRose said. “We took an opportunity to learn a lesson over a win. I’d like to think we’ll be a stronger team overall now. We’re coming in full strength. We’re coming to complete our goal for the year, to be district champs.”
Just as on the boys side, South Sumter will push the Lady Sharks the hardest, LaRose said. The Lady Raiders are stout in their field events and middle distance.
Yet Nature Coast’s depth could be too much to overcome. At the Bulldog Invitational, the Lady Sharks won tallied 147.5 points for first place, followed by non-district foe Orlando-Bishop Moore Catholic (88) and then South Sumter (70).
“They’re the most talent-heavy,” Hernando girls coach Shawanda McCullough said of Nature Coast. “They have excellent contenders in pretty much every event. They have no holes. So naturally they are the ones to beat.”
LaRose anticipates sending 15 girls to regionals, and believes a good day could yield as many as 20 qualifiers.
“A good day for us will be if the ones we expect to get through get through, and everybody else improves their times and distances,” McCullough said.
Senior Ebone Plummer won district titles in the shot put as a freshman and sophomore, then finished second last year.
She and sophomore Lauren Plaugher, the county champ in discus, are candidates to advance, along with Kendall Raney in the 800, Jasha Patrick in the 400 and Tierra Ousley in the 200. Patrick, Plaugher, Plummer and Raney went to regionals in 2012.
The Leopard boys hope Tyrail Hawkins can shake off a season-long groin injury to return to regionals in the 100, plus make it in the 200 and help the 4x100 do the same.
Throwers Connor Foradas (discus) and Darren Hambrick (shot put) are also looking for return trips to regionals.
“My expectation is for the kids to run hard and compete,” Hernando boys coach Rodney Byrd said. “That’s all you can do.”
Another county team just trying to gain some regional representation is Weeki Wachee.
The Hornets are participating in the 2A-9 Meet Friday at Tampa-Berkeley Prep. Field events and the 4x800 begin at noon. Running prelims start at 3 p.m. and finals at 5:30 p.m.
“Throughout the year we’ve been competing, we’re just not there yet,” Weeki Wachee coach Jon Malandrucco said. “We’re improving. We just want to continue to improve.
“I’m not sure at this point we can win a lot of races and get people to regionals. But I believe we’ll get there next year.”
Marcus Applefield (shot put) and Jacob Tinch (discus) are the best bets to reach the 2A-III Meet April 18 hosted by Titusville-Astronaut. Hurdler Ashleigh Campagna could have a shot for the girls.
Last year Steven James (pole vault) and Hiram Matos (triple jump) became the first regional qualifiers for the fledgling Hornets. James made it to states, but the senior will not compete for the remainder of this season for undisclosed reasons.
“Send one to regionals, get somebody to be in the top four,” Malandrucco said of the district goal. “As a coach, you want everybody to go, but where we’re at right now, that’s not something that’s attainable.”
At a Glance
What – Class 2A, District 6 Meet
Who – Eustis, Hernando, Hudson, Mount Dora, Nature Coast, Pasco, South Sumter, Tavares and Umatilla
Where – Tavares High, 603 N. New Hampshire Ave., Tavares
When – Today: Field events and the 4x800 at 1 p.m. Running prelims are set for 4 p.m., and finals are at either 7 p.m. or one hour after the conclusion of prelims.
At Stake – Team district championship; top four finishers in each event advance to 2A-Region II Meet April 18 at Jacksonville-Bolles.
What – Class 2A, District 9 Meet
Who – Anclote, Tampa-Berkeley Prep, Fivay, Tampa-Academy of the Holy Names girls, Tampa-Jesuit boys, Tampa-Middleton, Tampa-Robinson, Tampa Catholic, Weeki Wachee and Wesley Chapel
Where – Tampa-Berkeley Prep, 4811 Kelly Road, Tampa
When – Friday: Field events and the 4x800 begin at noon. Running prelims start at 3 p.m. and finals at 5:30 p.m.
At Stake – Team district championship; top four finishers in each event advance to 2A-Region III Meet April 18 hosted by Titusville-Astronaut.