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Monday, Mar 02, 2015

Fear the Fin . again

Hernando Today correspondent


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It's time to cue up the Jaws theme.

Last winter at Central's Bears' Den, Nature Coast Technical's Lady Sharks weightlifting team unseated six-time Hernando County champion Springstead at the county meet, 67-57.

The team victory was NCT's first in the meet's 12-year history.

NCT head coach Sharon Elliott, whose team finished with a school-best 7-1 won-lost slate, graduated two defending champs: Lifter of the Year Kiana Espinal at 169 pounds and Jasmyn Davila at 129.

Espinal is looked at in the same vein as the mighty USS Gerald R. Ford - an aircraft carrier.

That's what happens when you earn two medals at the prestigious Disparti Invitational at River Ridge, win a pair of county titles, win two district crowns and reach states in back-to-back seasons.

Another county champ, junior Audrey Thompson at 101, injured a knee and is out this year.

But the NCT lifters aren't fretting. They have 41 reasons - the number of kids on their abundant preseason roster - not to worry prior to tonight's season-opening match against archrival Hernando.

Elliott, who is 16-5 entering her fourth season at NCT, was the architect of the fine Central High program in the early portion of the millennium.

The defending Coach of the Year, Elliott has at her disposal three defending 2013 county champions: seniors Kayla Harvey at 110, Alicia Gentz at 119 and Rachel Crayton at 183.

Now, add to the mix returning veterans senior Brianna Horn, junior Bronte Cameron and sophomore Ashley Gentz at 119, sophomore Annelise Rentas at 129, senior Brittney Traudt at 139/154, sophomore Kailee Hamilton at 199 and Ysenia Chavez at unlimited.

Both the Gentz sisters and Crayton are returning All-County selections.

"It feels like we have a whole new team, but it's really not," summed up Coach Elliott, whose team tied for fourth in the third Disparti Meet, placed fifth in the rugged District 5 Meet and had a county-high three state representatives. "What I like most are the veterans who have stuck with it."

On the team's outlook, "Obviously with 41 kids, depth will not be an issue," noted Elliott. "We had a liftoff last Friday, which served as a mock meet before facing Hernando. At this point, we're loaded at 119 and 154. It's not a bad problem to have per se. But we're going to have to spread out some of our kids.

"Once the first meet is over, we'll get a better idea of where we're at and more importantly where the other teams are at."

Addressing the team's strengths, "We've got a nice problem to have in choosing kids," noted Elliott. "We have enough returning girls to serve as role models for the younger ones."

Elliott indicated that Alicia Gentz, Crayton and Chavez serve as the team's designated leaders.

On whether the loaded Lady Sharks can repeat as county champs, "It is what it is," stressed Elliott.

"Being No. 1 last year helped us get a bunch of girls out this year," she said. "It helps us going forward because it replenishes our numbers. We're looking for those girls that aren't playing basketball or soccer."

On whether it'll be harder to defend the county title than winning last winter, "Ask me later after our first meet," suggested Elliott. "There's a huge unknown factor until people get their first meets under their belts."

The 22-team District 5 Meet - where only the top three lifters in each of the 10 weight divisions qualifies for states - will be held at River Ridge on Jan. 21.

Last winter, River Ridge (53 points), Citrus (39), Hudson (24) and Sunlake (21) finished ahead of Nature Coast (20).

"I see the same teams at the top with River Ridge, Citrus and Sunlake," detailed Elliott. "The trick is to stay near the top year in and year out. With our solid core group, we should move up from fifth."

As far as contending for district first-place blue ribbons, Coach Elliott believes both Gentz sisters, Rentas, Traudt and Crayton have the best chance to advance to the 11th annual FHSAA Finals again at the Kissimmee Civic Center on Feb. 8.

"We'll know more after the Disparti Meet, because that's when we'll see a lot more of the talented kids we'll see later at districts," noted Elliott.

According to Elliott, NCT will have a successful season if "we suffer no major injuries and girls keep working as hard as they've been doing."

???The 2012-13 season served as a rebuilding year for the Lady Eagles.

Besides losing to NCT for the first time school history to finish 3-1, SHS placed sixth in the District 5 Meet and sent two lifters to states: seniors Ashleigh Ruby at 139 and Andrea Purvis at 199.

Though Ruby and Purvis graduated, SHS' two other All-County performers are back: sophomore Kristina McCane at 101 and junior Madeline Genuardi at 154.

Seventh-year Lady Eagle skipper Mike Garofano, who is still wrapped up coaching the varsity football team in the regional playoffs, has firepower at his fingertips under the bar with seniors Ty'Rhonza Harris at 119 and Wilena Little at 129, juniors Isabella Sorresso at 110, Asya Scrivens at 139 and Christina Magrini at 169, and sophomore Justine Peppe at unlimited.

"Overall, I think we lack the depth that we've had in the past," explained Garofano, whose program has generated 40 county champs in 10 years - twice as much as either NCT or Hernando. "So a lot of our younger girls will have to step up."

Looking at the overall picture, Garofano believes McCane, Genuardi and Harris have the ability to place at districts and reach states.

"To me, those three have the best shot," he said. "The big thing is getting to states."

On the District 5 outlook, "It's the usual suspects with Citrus, River Ridge and Sunlake," identified Garofano. "Those are the top three programs. At this point, I see us in the middle of the pack."

For Springstead to have a successful season, "We've got to get girls to continue working hard," emphasized Garofano. "In our sport, you don't just lift between October and January. We're working on forming a solid nucleus. My assistant coach Shauna (Jager) is working their tails off in preparing for the season. The key for us is continuing to improve throughout the season."

Despite a lack of numbers, Hernando mentor Casey Ellis has quietly gone 9-9 across the past three winters.

This winter the most encouraging news emanating from the Howell Avenue campus is a huge numbers surge.

To that end, HHS' preseason roster features 31 lifters - featuring a substantial gain in smaller weight classes, which the Lady Leopards have traditionally had difficulty in fielding.

The Purple and Gold's biggest losses center around four-year letterman and two-time All-County pick Victoria Alderman's graduation and defending county champion, junior Megan Lane, not returning for her third season.

Three county runner-ups from 2013 - Cardeja Baylor at unlimited, Taylor Milligan at 183 and Karolynn Hodges at l99 - are expected to compete for county titles.

On the plus side, HHS returns senior Heather Rawson at 169 (county champ Espinal and runner-up Alderman have graduated).

Since the team has been bolstered by the presence of the ultra-competitive softball seniors Courtney Riddle and Tana McDaniel - the Lady Leopards have a tantalizing blend of veterans and athletes.

"I can't wait for the season to start," explained the optimistic Coach Ellis. "Sure, I wish we had Megan back, but the cupboard is far from bare even after we lost her and Victoria. We've got a bunch of cheerleaders out this year and they've helped swell our numbers.

"For the first time in four years, we've got a chance to go into meets with two kids in every weight class," noted Ellis. "That's the ideal situation."

As far as newcomers, "You know how competitive Courtney and Tana are," detailed Ellis. "And right now, they're in the same weight class. So buddy get ready. Those two will be great role models for everyone else. They're here to get stronger for softball season - and I can't blame them."

In the county race, "Nature Coast and Springstead have to be at the top until someone beats them," said Ellis. "Hopefully, with all the kids we've got, we can give them a run for their money."

In the District 5 picture, "To me, there's no change at the top with Citrus, River Ridge and Sunlake. We're a lot like Springstead, I think we'll be in the middle of it," Ellis said. "Overall, my kids are young and inexperienced, especially in the big meets."

As far individuals going deep into districts and possibly states, "Tana is an absolute beast in everything she does. She's like Megan, a natural. Don't be surprised to see her have instant success," pointed out Ellis. "And I'm a big fan of Courtney. I'm expecting her to compete right to the end.

"I think Heather and Taylor could go long. Heather's worked extremely hard since last season."

Weeki Wachee's third-year mentor Mike Fye, 1-13 overall, did not return messages for this story.

At Central, with Mike Einspahr's resignation following football season, Joe Nestor was hired just prior to the press deadline to replace Einspahr.

Einspahr, 1-13 overall, coached the CHS lifters the past two winters.

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