Over its first nine seasons, Nature Coast could typically count on its share of excitement during the district tournament.
From 2003-12, the Lady Sharks collected five district titles and at least reached the championship game seven times.
But last year at this point, Nature Coast and the rest of its county brethren advanced no further than the district semifinals.
It was the first time since 1993 that no county team made it to regionals.
The hope for the six local squads embarking on three separate district tournaments this week is to make last season an aberration.
If form holds, the Lady Sharks (18-3) should fulfill that goal.
Nature Coast enters the Class 5A, District 7 Tournament at Pasco High as the top seed, receiving a bye into the semis.
The Lady Sharks won't have to take the floor until Wednesday at 8 p.m., facing the winner of Tuesday's 6:30 p.m. quarterfinal between fourth-seeded Central (12-12) and fifth-seeded Zephyrhills.
This seven-team event kicks off Monday, when seventh-seeded Weeki Wachee (0-22) takes on host and second seed Pasco at 7 p.m.
Hernando (15-9), seeded third, will face the sixth seed, Wesley Chapel, on Tuesday at 8 p.m.
The district final is set for Friday at 7 p.m., and though Nature Coast figures to be in action that night, head coach Emily Gore isn't taking it for granted.
"We're just trying to focus on the first step and that's the winner of Central-Zephyrhills," Gore said. "We know that night it's win or go home. We're trying to practice with that mentality.
"I think we're playing our best basketball at this point. We're happy with the way we've played in the month of January. We got a couple of good wins, against Citrus at our place and Pasco at our place. But it's lot harder to play on the road."
Indeed the Lady Sharks are rolling, having won six straight. They've avenged all of their losses this season, by downing Citrus on Jan. 8, 52-43, and Pasco on Jan. 14, 55-40.
Junior center Rita Jarque continues to dominate inside, pacing the county in scoring and rebounding while averaging well above a double-double.
The potent backcourt of cousins Fatima and Mirandas Jones provide athleticism on the perimeter, and Emmalee Harris and Latavea Sesler round out a solid all-around starting lineup.
A key issue, though, has been the health of Fatima Jones, the team's point guard. A concussion severely limited her playing time around the holiday break.
Though she appeared fully recovered, Gore said Jones missed practice this past week due to illness. Fortunately for Nature Coast, it did not have any games scheduled.
Assuming Fatima Jones can recover by Wednesday's tip, the Lady Sharks figure to be a difficult out.
Pasco was the only 5A-7 team to knock off Nature Coast, 58-49 on Dec. 6 in Dade City.
"I think Nature Coast is a very well-put-together team," Hernando head coach Kevin Bittinger said. "They play physical. They're the number one seed for a reason."
Still, the Lady Sharks will likely have to prove they can topple the Lady Pirates on their own court in order to collect a championship trophy.
"Especially in high school, you're always more comfortable in your home gym," Gore said. "We know we have to show up and play very well in their place. Obviously the first time we didn't show up and play well.
"We want to focus on first getting to play Central or Zephyrhills. We're trying not to even think about Friday night.
"We're 18-3, that's a huge accomplishment for us. But 18-3 doesn't mean anything when you get in the district tournament. They're not going to let us get into the district championship game because we have 18 wins."
? ? ?
For Hernando and Central to spoil the anticipated Nature Coast-Pasco finale, both teams must combat their up-and-down nature.
"We're so inconsistent, it's tough to say," Bittinger said. "We know we have to beat a real good basketball team (Pasco) if we want to get into the district championship.
"I think we can play with most teams, but our lack of consistency has prevented us from being taken seriously."
The play of senior forward Arianna Tankersley (12.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.0 steals), along with sophomore Jaziana Mathis (7.8 points, 6.0 rebounds) and junior point guard TaShara Owens (5.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 3.1 steals) has buoyed the Lady Leopards to a winning mark.
Owens, though, will have to bounce back after injuring her ankle on Tuesday.
Hernando has handled Wesley Chapel twice, 52-27 and 58-29, but hasn't had as much luck with potential semifinal foe Pasco, losing 45-32 and 47-25.
"Our girls work hard. They've worked hard all season," Bittinger said. "We know how we're going to approach it. We're a defense-oriented team. We're good at defense because we work hard for the most part.
"We're not going to look past Wesley Chapel. We're focused on them, and if we play Pasco (in the semifinals) we'll give everything we've got."
Central swept Zephyrhills but most recently had a close call, winning 36-34 on Jan. 10. In the earlier meeting Dec. 3, the Lady Bears posted a 64-32 triumph.
As far as the top two seeds, Central showed it could hang when it stunned Pasco in overtime on Jan. 7, 73-68.
Befitting their .500 record, the Lady Bears are 4-4 since then, including a 57-38 defeat at Pasco last Saturday.
With junior Evelyn Anderson's scoring on the wing combined with fellow juniors Christian Lewis and Desiree McGee on the interior, Central has enough firepower to be dangerous.
"If we come ready to play, I think we'll at least be competitive and be all right," Central head coach Penny Gressick said. "For some reason some nights we don't come ready to play and that's my concern."
Though Gressick emphasized the Lady Bears must first avoid stumbling against an improved Zephyrhills, she admits a potential third meeting with Nature Coast doesn't look promising on paper.
The Lady Sharks beat Central on Nov. 19, 73-64, and Dec. 17, 72-35.
"Personally, I don't think we match up well against them at all. That's the one team I fear the most," Gressick said. "The goal is, it doesn't matter how you start; it's how you finish, and we've played tough against stiff competition going down the stretch.
"Then other times we're not ready to play. As a coach, I can't give a reason why that happens."
? ? ?
Outside of Nature Coast, the county club with the most realistic chance of advancing out districts may be Hernando Christian Academy.
The Lady Lions are 8-14 overall, yet 6-4 in 2A-8, good enough to be seeded third in the district tournament taking place at St. Petersburg-Keswick Christian School.
HCA battles sixth-seeded Citrus Park Christian Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
"Keswick is going to win the district unless something happens and a flu hits them or something," HCA head coach Mike Drummond said. "But second place is wide open. We're in great position. Being in third place, it puts us in the opposite bracket of Keswick.
"If we play to our potential, we can play with anybody else in the district besides Keswick. It's a great opportunity. Whether we take advantage of it remains to be seen."
Both times the Lady Lions played Citrus Park Christian they earned the win, 45-24 on Dec. 16 and 40-38 on Jan. 7.
That second game was on the road, a place where Drummond admits his team has struggled. Consider also that HCA downed second-seeded Bayshore Christian in Brooksville on Dec. 10, 22-19, then lost the return matchup in Tampa on Jan. 9, 47-32.
Drummond hopes a neutral court and change of routine - HCA typically brings its girls and boys middle school and varsity teams on combined road trips during the regular season - will help alleviate the woes away from home.
Though the Lady Lions struggle to put the ball in the basket, their defense has been sound, paced by sophomore Mary Jackson averaging over six steals per contest.
Before having a shot at earning the third regional berth in program history in Thursday's semifinals, HCA must take care of business against Citrus Park Christian.
"They've very aggressive," Drummond said. "They have a young lady that coaches, but she knows what she's doing. They're not as bad as you would think by looking at them on paper.
"They're a dangerous team, especially for a team like us, young and inexperienced, going on a two-hour drive to get there."
Even with Keswick looking unbeatable in the final, just getting to that point excites the Lady Lions.
"There's something about having that trophy with your name on it. It's in the trophy case forever," Drummond said. "So yeah, we're pretty motivated, especially Kady Curry, being a senior. It's her last opportunity to do that. With her motivated, I know she'll get the young girls fired up.
"When you're a small school like ours, these opportunities are few and far between. So you want to take advantage of them."
Springstead (7-15) came into the season believing it had an opportunity for at the very least its first winning record since 1992-93.
However, a rash of injuries derailed the Lady Eagles, starting with senior forward Anna Poholek, the reigning Hernando Today Player of the Year, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in early December.
They've gone 1-12 since she went down, and along the way also lost sophomore center Alyssa Clifton, averaging 7.6 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, to a fractured ankle.
Adding to the troubles, junior Mikayla Waddy (broken wrist) and sophomore Janea Deloach (concussion) are also out.
Springstead has had to dip into its JV squad just to fill out the roster around sharp-shooting senior guard Hailey Enjeneski.
Having gone winless in 6A-10, the Lady Eagles are seeded fifth and will travel to fourth-seeded Largo for a game Monday at 7 p.m.
"We're trying to get experience and improve," Springstead head coach George Bennett said. "We've got so many young kids, it's almost like we've turned back the clock to two years ago when we were starting four sophomores.
"I've been doing this long enough to know these things happen. I'm more disappointed for the girls. I'm really proud of the way they've handled it."
In a unique setup, all games in this tournament will be hosted by the higher seed. The winner between Springstead and Largo will travel to top-seeded St. Petersburg-Dixie Hollins for a semifinal Wednesday.
As the Lady Eagles have done for the better part of the past two months, they'll try to make the best out of a difficult situation.
"It's disappointing because we feel we couldn't do the things we wanted to do this season," Bennett said. "But at the same time I've reminded them that they've brought this program so far and laid the groundwork. Everything we achieve going forward is on the foundation they've built."
At a Glance
What - Class 5A, District 7 Tournament
Who - No. 1 seed Nature Coast, No. 2 Pasco, No. 3 Hernando, No. 4 Central, No. 5 Zephyrhills and No. 6 Wesley Chapel
Where - Pasco High, 36850 State Road 52, Dade City
When - Monday through Wednesday, final on Friday at 7 p.m.
At Stake - District championship and two berths into Feb. 6 5A-Region II quarterfinals
What - Class 6A, District 10 Tournament
Who - No. 1 St. Petersburg-Dixie Hollins, No. 2 Mitchell, No. 3 Seminole-Osceola, No. 4 Largo and No. 5 Springstead
Where - All games hosted by higher seed
When - Monday, Wednesday, final on Friday at 7 p.m.
At Stake - District championship and two berths into Feb. 6 6A-Region III quarterfinals
What - Class 2A, District 8 Tournament
Who - No. 1 St. Petersburg-Keswick Christian, No. 2 Tampa-Bayshore Christian, No. 3 HCA, No. 4 St. Petersburg-Canterbury, No. 5 Clearwater-Lakeside Christian and No. 6 Tampa-Citrus Park Christian
When - Keswick Christian School, 10101 54th Ave. N, St Petersburg
Where - Tuesday, Thursday, final on Friday at 7 p.m.
At Stake - District championship and two berths into Feb. 6 2A-Region II quarterfinals