Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Sports

NCT, Hernando among district favorites

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Over the past four seasons, the boys hoops postseason spotlight in Hernando County has belonged to Nature Coast.

No team in local history has put together a four-year run of success comparable to the Sharks: three district titles, four regional appearances, four trips to the Sweet 16, three to the Elite Eight, one to the Final Four.

If not for Wiregrass Ranch's stirring fourth-quarter rally in the district title game back in 2011, the Sharks would have a shot at their fifth consecutive district crown heading into the Class 5A, District 7 Tournament this week.

Instead they'll try to make it three in a row, coming into the seven-team event hosted by Wesley Chapel as the top seed.

"It's going to be very competitive," Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik said. "You've got three teams, four teams that have played good basketball all year long and have a chance to win it.

"I think there's a lot of pressure on some of these players to be able to repeat the success we've had in the past. I feel like the seniors need to step up and play good basketball."

Not since Springstead in the 2009-10 season has another county squad advanced beyond the district level.

But that could legitimately change within the next few days. Hernando (13-5) enters seeded second, and riding a serious wave of momentum.

The Leopards defeated Nature Coast - for the first time since 2005 - on Jan. 16, 63-47, then bested Wesley Chapel on Jan. 24, 61-52, to clinch second place.

Hernando last reached regionals in 2004, but has a chance to erase that, starting with Monday's contest against seventh-seeded Weeki Wachee (3-22) at 7 p.m.

In two regular-season meetings, the Leopards handled the Hornets, 70-54 and 73-47.

"More than anything else it shows we've played well in the second half, to be fortunate enough to beat two teams ahead of us," Hernando head coach Jeff Laing said. "This experience is new for everyone involved in the program except for me.

"I think Weeki Wachee will be a very tough game. We know what their record is, but I think they're fully capable of pulling it together. Hopefully we go in with a focus."

If form holds, the Leopards will end up playing Wesley Chapel in Wednesday's semifinals at 8 p.m., with a regional berth on the line.

Hernando blew a 10-point halftime lead against the Wildcats when they played in Wesley Chapel on Dec. 17, falling 69-66.

Two seniors, point guard Mark Wilson and forward Mike Jones, are pacing the team in scoring, both averaging double figures.

The Leopards have also received key contributions from seniors Ra'Shaad Hart and Brian Duncan, as well as junior Dallas Maclachlan and sophomore Joel Wilson.

"We've been talking about building up our program and the little steps to keep doing that. Every day in practice we're trying to work on something new," said Laing, who returned to the bench this season after serving as head coach from 2001-07. "We've changed since the first time we played most people. We've been able to add on."

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The Sharks (18-7) shook off the loss to Hernando and defeated Wesley Chapel for a second time on Jan. 21, 38-32.

"I think losing a district game sort of woke us up and made us realize how tough this district really is," Pisarcik said "Beating Wesley Chapel and winning our last couple of games, I think gave us some confidence.

"We're playing well right now. But you've got to play well at the right time. Hopefully we're starting to play our best basketball at this time."

Senior guards Carlos Clemente and Jordan Burkes have led Nature Coast throughout the season, and senior forward Cody Bergantino has emerged as a key contributor inside.

The last three games, though, the Sharks received a huge boost with the return of senior forward Rohan Blackwood.

A two-time All-County player on the hardwood, but a Division I recruit on the gridiron, Blackwood hadn't played since Dec. 10 while trying to secure his football future.

Having verbally committed to USF, Blackwood has just enough time to provide Nature Coast with a strong, athletic force in the paint down the stretch.

The Sharks are 7-0 when he has played and a more modest 11-7 when he hasn't.

"When he wasn't there we still won games, but we weren't winning games like early on when we had him," Pisarcik said. "He brings a different type of element to the game. We're more confident in ourselves.

"When you bring back a Division I athlete, you're definitely helping your team."

Nature Coast won't play until the semis Wednesday, against the winner of Tuesday's 6:30 p.m. quarterfinal between fourth-seeded Zephyrhills and fifth-seeded Central (11-11).

Like Hernando, the Bears have had a hot hand in January, going 8-4 this past month. On Jan. 10 they defeated Zephyrhills, 51-29.

That was in stark contrast to the first game between those teams on Dec. 3, a 59-39 win for the Bulldogs. Zephyrhills received the higher seeding based on a coin flip.

"I think we've been playing better in 2014," Central head coach Matt Zandecki said. "We're playing better team ball. If we play the type of ball we need to play, I think we have a chance to compete. If we don't do what's necessary, it'll be tough to even get out of the first round."

Senior guard Sinjin Blaha has arguably been the best player in the county and perhaps the district, averaging 19.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.0 steals and 3.6 assists.

As the players around him have gained experienced, the results have improved.

"I think we're doing a good job defense-wise. We're a good defensive team," Zandecki said. "I think the second half of the season we've done a good job rebounding. We've done a better job on the boards."

Still, a 70-50 loss to Nature Coast on Jan. 24, after losing to the Sharks on Dec. 17, 65-34, makes that potential second-round clash all the more daunting.

"Nature Coast is playing good ball recently," Zandecki said. "To be honest, both times we've played them we've played horrible. Those are two of our worst games of the season.

"All I can ask from my kids is to leave it on the floor and do everything I ask them. If they do that we have a chance to win. If they don't, we'll get blown out."

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The only county team involved in postseason play not in 5A-7, Springstead (9-13 before Friday's game against Tavares), will take part in the 6A-10 Tournament.

As the fourth seed, the Eagles host fifth-seeded St. Petersburg-Dixie Hollins on Monday at 7 p.m. All tournament games will be hosted by the higher seed.

Springstead lost a critical coin flip to Seminole-Osceola breaking the tie for third place.

Because of that, with a win on Monday the Eagles would have to face top seed Largo on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

The Packers went 8-0 in district play, defeating Springstead on Dec. 20, 65-56, and Jan. 10, 79-43.

"We were a game away from being the third seed," Springstead head coach Tim Plumadore said. "Not that (second-seeded) Mitchell is a slouch, but I like our chances versus Mitchell more so than Largo.

"There is no getting around the fact they're really good. We can game-plan for them and be prepared, but it's really hard to beat those guys. They're in pressure every possession for 32 minutes. Give them credit; they play hard for 32 minutes and they're pretty darn good."

The Eagles swept Dixie Hollins in two December meetings, but came into Friday on a nine-game losing streak, having dropped 11 of their last 12.

It has been a struggle with consistency, Plumadore said. However, senior guard Devonte Valentin and Aaron Waddy are among the county's statistical leaders.

"The only thing we'd be satisfied with would be winning," Plumadore said. "Anything less, that's not what we're going out there for."

cbernhardt@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5288

At a Glance

What - Class 5A, District 7 Tournament

Who - No. 1 seed Nature Coast, No. 2 Hernando, No. 3 Wesley Chapel, No. 4 Zephyrhills, No. 5 Central, No. 6 Pasco and No. 7 Weeki Wachee

Where - Wesley Chapel High, 30651 Wells Road, Wesley Chapel

When - Monday through Wednesday, final on Friday at 7 p.m.

At Stake - District championship and two berths into Feb. 13 5A-Region II quarterfinals

What - Class 6A, District 10 Tournament

Who - No. 1 Largo, No. 2 Mitchell, No. 3 Seminole-Osceola, No. 4 Springstead and No. 5 St. Petersburg-Dixie Hollins

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. 13 6A-Region III quarterfinals

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