ORLANDO - Even a dropped baton couldn't stop the Nature Coast Lady Sharks from running their way into a second-place finish Wednesday night in the Class 2A, Region II Meet at Orlando-The First Academy.
The Lady Sharks went from trophy position to disaster and back because they followed their coaches' advice.
After leading third-place Pasco for most of the event, the Lady Sharks' 4x100-meter relay team of Ashley Gentz, Alicia Gentz, Nilsa-Marie Rodriguez and Kaitlyn Pierce, who were seeded first in the event, had trouble handing the baton off and dropped it on the exchange between the first and second leg.
After being disqualified from the event, Nature Coast girls coach Ryan Wilson had a message for his team: Put it behind you, there are races to be won.
With the Lady Pirates done running, the Lady Sharks found themselves trailing the second-place Lady Pirates by five points with only the 4x400 left.
The team of Alicia Gentz, Rodriguez, Crystal Burchhardt, and Eboni Johnson would need a fourth-place finish to tie and a third-place finish to secure the regional runner-up trophy.
On the final lap, Gentz would kick it into a second gear, and finish second by one hundredth of a second to Orlando-Lake Highland Prep in a photo finish, 4:08.12-4:08.13, moving the Lady Sharks three ahead of Pasco in the final standings, 65-62.
Lake Highland Prep collected the team championship with 100.50, but it was still Nature Coast's highest-ever regional placing.
"Those girls have a lot of heart," Wilson said. "I'm just proud of them, to not let one thing affect the other."
It was a successful day for the Lady Sharks, who will send seven athletes to the state meet at the University of North Florida on May 2.
"They have an attitude where they think they are the best," Wilson said. "They want to be the best, beat the best, and compete with the best."
Advancing for the Lady Sharks will be the Gentz sisters, who find themselves in search of track medals to go with their state weightlifting medals.
Senior Alicia Gentz will compete in the 100 (fourth, 12.53) and 4x400, and sophomore Ashley Gentz will be in the 200 (fourth, 25.70).
"It feels great to finally make it in the 100 after three years of running it," the elder Gentz said. "It would cap off a senior year perfectly to medal at states."
Joining the Gentz sisters at states will be Burchhardt, who will compete in the 4x800 and 4x400, Johnson, who will run in the 4x800, 4x400 and 400 (fourth, 1:01.83), Rodriguez, who will run in the 4x400, as well as Rita Jarque, who will throw in the shot put (fourth, 35-3 1/2).
Brianna Horn and Alexa Lacy round out the 4x800 team at the state meet, and Horn will run in the 800, as well, having taken fourth in 2:29.33.
"It feels awesome to go to states," Burchhardt said. "I'm proud of my team, we gave it our all today."
Burchhardt, who also advanced to states in cross country, said the biggest difference between track and cross country is all the people.
"Cross country you're all alone in the woods," the senior said. "Track you have all the people watching you and it makes it pretty cool."
Joining the Lady Sharks at the state meet will be a pair of Hernando Lady Leopards, as Jashá Patrick in the 300 hurdles (third, 46.12) and Lauren Plaugher (third, 110-2) in the discus made states for the second year in a row.
"It's a high-intensity atmosphere, everyone is hungry for it," Hernando girls coach Shawanda McCullough said. "Patrick set a personal record and got a ticket to the show, so we will take it."
Patrick, who also ran in the 100 hurdles, took a spill in qualifying and was sporting some scrapes and bruises before punching her ticket.
"She persevered," McCullough said. "Initially she was heartbroken, but I told her it's water under the bridge and there is another race to be run."
After falling, Patrick said she was shaken up, but her coach put everything back into perspective for her.
"She told me this isn't the first time I had fell," Patrick said. "I still needed a ticket to state, and after I heard my name on the intercom I was just like, 'Yes I'm going back to states.'"
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On the boys side, state qualifiers were few and far between for Hernando County, but Weeki Wachee and Nature Coast managed to get some through.
For the Hornets, discus thrower Jacob Tinch qualified for states, placing fourth with 137-10.
"Jacob went out and threw great," Hornets coach Jon Malandrucco said. "Our kids came out and gave it their all today. It was a great experience."
As for the Sharks, James Harkless advanced in the 800 (fourth, 2:02.79) and 1,600 (second, 4:33.01), and will be joined at states by Brian Haygood in the triple jump (fourth, 42-3) and 4x100, and Jordan Burkes, DeShawn Smith and Jalen McFarland, who round out the 4x100 (third, 43.40).
"Haygood wasn't ranked to advance but went out there and advanced," Sharks coach Eric Milholland said. "We were thrilled to death seeing guys advance.
"The 4x100 was ranked sixth coming in and they ran well and finished third," Milholland said. "Guys that were ranked had a shot to go and guys that weren't ranked ran well enough to go."
One of those guys coming in on the bubble was Harkless, a regional champion in the 1,600 back in 2012, and he wasn't at 100 percent going in.
"James didn't run well last week, but we knew he could make it," Milholland said. "Sure enough he did.
"We told him to stay in the top four and stay in striking distance," Milholland said. "The wind was bad on the back stretch, so I told him whatever you do, don't lead."
The plan of staying in contention and letting everyone else lead until the last lap paid off as Harkless ran a masterful race, picking off competitors one-by-one on the last lap before finishing second by half of a second.
"He made the mistake of leading at Anclote and got blown by on the last lap," Milholland said. "This time he was the guy who waited and it worked well for him."
As for the 4x100, Milholland was pleased to see his club advance, but knows there are things to be worked on still.
"I think we need to work on the little things, such as exchanging the baton, to get ready," Milholland said "I'm just thrilled to death they are going, but those little things can help next week."
Class 2A, Region II Meet
9. Nature Coast (NCT) 32, 23. Weeki Wachee (WW) 6, 26. Hernando (HER) 4, 29. Cental (CEN) 2
(Top eight score team points; top four advance to states)
4x800 - 5. Carr, J. Wilson, Pantley, M. Wilson (HER) 8:55.28, 6. Conway, Florkowski, Mulyck, Remondelli (NCT) 8:58.82
LJ - 7. Smith (NCT) 21-3
TJ - 4. Haygood (NCT) 42-3
SP - 10. Foradas (HER) 42-3
DIS - 4. Tinch (WW) 137-10
1600 - 2. Harkless (NCT) 4:33.01
110 hurdles - 8. Jones (WW) 17.01
4x100 - 3. McFarland, Smith, Haygood, Burkes (NCT) 43.40
800 - 4. Harkless (NCT) 2:02.79, 15. Conway (NCT) 2:18.38
3200 - 6. Mulyck (NCT) 10:27.03, 7. Gray (CEN) 10:29.97
4x400 - 14. Harkless, Burkes, Smith, Conway (NCT) 3:43.37
1. Orlando-Lake Highland Prep 100.50, 2. Nature Coast (NCT) 65, 15. Hernando (HER) 13
(Top eight score team points; top four advance to states)
4x800 - 2. Johnson, Burchhardt, Horn, Lacy (NCT) 10:18.88, 13. Benson, Wells, Papa, Laporte (HER) 11:45.20
HJ - 12. Schmit (NCT) 4-6
TJ - 8. Patrick (HER) 32-2 1/2
SP - 4. Jarque (NCT) 35-3 1/2
DIS - 3. Plaugher (HER) 110-2
PV - 10. Horn (NCT) 7-0
1600 - 8. Burchhardt (NCT) 5:42.45
100 hurdles - 6. Cameron (NCT) 16.05, 7. Schmit (NCT) 16.84, 13. Patrick (HER) 19.38
4x100 - As. Gentz, Al. Gentz, Rodriguez, Pierce (NCT) DNF (1st, 48.95 in prelims), 10. Alicia Drumheller, Ashelie Campagna, Briana Lawing, Jenna Gouldey (WW) 54.19
100 - 4. Al. Gentz (NCT) 12.53, 5. As. Gentz (NCT) 12.65
300 hurdles - 3. Patrick (HER) 46.12, 7. Cameron (NCT) 48.92
400 - 4. Johnson (NCT) 1:01.83
800 - 4. Horn (NCT) 2:29.33
200 - 4. As. Gentz (NCT) 25.70, 5. Rodriguez (NCT) 26.11, 6. Al. Gentz (NCT) 26.48
3200 - 6. Lacy (NCT) 12:30.86, 7. Arvay (NCT) 12:33.75
4x400 - 2. Burchhardt, Al. Gentz, Rodriguez, Johnson (NCT) 4:08.12