BROOKSVILLE – Despite difficulty getting out of its own way, it appeared Nature Coast would escape with a season-opening victory Friday night.
Hosting Crystal River, the Sharks committed 20 penalties for 185 yards – equaling their rushing output – yet never trailed until no time remained on the clock.
With time expired, backup signal caller Khyrel Harvey tossed a 31-yard pass down the left sideline toward Keshon Hopkins, who caught the ball over the defensive back in the end zone to seal a 26-21 triumph for the visiting Pirates.
“Any time you got it down to the last minute like that, you always want to win the game,” said Nature Coast head coach Justin Worden, making his official debut with the team. “If you play bad and you don’t do things you want to do, it’s real easy to fix things.
“It’s the ones like this that are tough because they rip your heart out and then on top of that now you’ve got to turn around when you’re not in a great mood during the week and fix stuff and get back after it.
“It (the penalties) didn’t help, but I wouldn’t blame it on that. We had a lot of problems just lining up. Easy things, like I told the kids after the game, easy fixes.”
Hopkins accounted for three of the Pirates’ (1-0) four touchdowns, including two in the final minutes of the game.
He was the recipient of a 17-yard scoring strike from Harvey in the second quarter, and ran 58 yards on a double reverse for a touchdown with 2:19 remaining that cut the deficit to 21-20.
Nature Coast (0-1) was unable to run out the clock, twice getting flagged for a personal foul on the ensuing drive.
Starting at the Nature Coast 44, Crystal River drove to the 31 with 0.5 seconds to go when Harvey hit Hopkins that final time.
“It’s crazy, a blessing, that’s what it is. I thank God for that,” Hopkins said. “Khyrel made a hell of a throw; that was a nice throw he made. And I’m proud of him. He stepped up.”
The junior Harvey replaced starter Collin Ryan when the senior went down with a possible broken collarbone on the game-opening drive.
Despite never playing quarterback at any level, Harvey went 5-of-7 for 69 yards, throwing those two touchdowns while avoiding any interceptions.
“When our quarterback went down, I just stepped in and tried to do what I could to get the win,” Harvey said. “The first couple of snaps I was trying to get myself together. I just got used to it, felt like I could get the win.
“Keshon had him one-on-one (on the last play). He can go up and get any ball. I just threw it up to him and he came down with it.”
Nature Coast had led for most of the game, starting with a 92-yard return of a fumble by Joseph Leonard late in the first quarter. The loose ball was initially scooped up by Tyler Eaton, who lost it while getting hit by a Crystal River player.
DeShawn Smith’s 65-yard touchdown dash in the second, plus a 2-point conversion run by quarterback Jamison Carnegie, made it 15-0 before the Pirates pulled to 15-6 at the intermission.
When Carnegie scored from a yard out with 4:53 in the fourth quarter, pushing the lead to 21-12, it appeared the Sharks were in control.
“I’m 30 years old and I think I had my first heart attack,” Crystal River head coach Nate Varnadore said. “I tell the kids, I’ll win. I’ll take any kind. But I don’t like winning them like this. Lot of mistakes. There was too much yellow on the field tonight.
“I’m proud of these young men. We entered this game with 19 kids on our active roster. And we found a way to win. I love these young men. They’ve bought into what we’re doing. They fought the whole time. Words cannot express the love I have for these young men and what they’ve overcome the past few years.”
Smith was a bright spot for the Sharks, the junior totaling 131 yards on 17 carries.
Nature Coast will have a chance to regroup thanks to a Week 2 bye before a Sept. 12 game at Springstead.
“We showed flashes of what we’re looking for, absolutely,” Worden said. “I felt like we dragged a little bit this week in practice and it carried over on the field, and that’s one thing we’ve tried to hammer home with them. From top to bottom you’ve got to be the same way.
“We got some young guys that are getting snaps. We’ve got some older guys that are really stepping up and showing a little leadership, especially when the chips are down, and that’s kind of what you’re looking for. You want those guys to step up and see if we can get everybody following on the same page.”
Crystal River 26, Nature Coast 21
Qtr. Scoring 1 2 3 4
CR 0 6 6 14 — 26
NCT 7 8 0 6 — 21
NCT – Leonard 92 fumble return (Florkowski kick)
NCT – Smith 65 run (Carnegie run)
CR – Hopkins 17 pass from Harvey (Bresson kick no good)
CR – Ellison 2 run (Harvey pass failed)
NCT – Carnegie 1 run (Carnegie pass failed)
CR – Hopkins 58 run (Harvey run)
CR – Hopkins 31 pass from Harvey
First Downs 15 7
Atts./Rushing Yds. 47-226 33-185
Comps./Pass/Atts/Int. 5-8-0 4-8-1
Passing Yds. 69 41
Total Offense 55-295 41-226
Return Yds. 5-13 3-18
Punts/Avg. 3-39.7 3-35.0
Fumbles/Lost 6-1 1-0
Penalties 11-90 20-185