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Wednesday, Apr 01, 2015

NCT still eyes district crowns


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Things haven't exactly been status quo for the Nature Coast track and field program lately, but out of the gate it seems not much has changed.

The Sharks have two new head coaches - sort of - yet still managed to notch first place on both the boys and girls side in their season-opening Nature Coast Early Bird Meet on Tuesday.

That had some meaning, since one of their primary challengers in the realigned Class 2A, District 7, South Sumter, was involved in that meet, finishing second.

The Nature Coast boys have collected six straight county championships, and four district titles - including two in a row - over that span.

The Lady Sharks have also captured two consecutive district crowns, and have battled Springstead for the county's top spot over the past several seasons.

However, girls coach Ed LaRose recently stepped down after six years when he accepted an administrative position at Hernando High.

That forced Ryan Wilson, who had resigned at the end of last season to spend more time with his family, to return and guide the girls after a highly successful seven-year run with the boys.

Cross country headman Eric Milholland, who was already on staff coaching distance and has long been the county's go-to guy to run meets, is now officially the boys coach.

It has been Milholland's distance runners who have provided a source of strength for the Sharks in recent years.

Now, said Milholland, who previously was a head coach in track at Central, his focus must shift to all areas.

"We have a couple returning, but really we need to fill a lot of spots," Milholland said.

That's what made Tuesday's performance so encouraging. Nature Coast scored 210 points compared to South Sumter's 147.

Senior James Harkless, the Runner of the Year in cross country, got off to the type of start expected for someone anticipated to make a run at a state medal. He finished first in the 400 meter (53.42), 800 (2:14.20) and 1,600 (4:50.87).

Harkless will be attempting to make states for the third straight year, having done so in the 1,600 as a sophomore and as part of the 4x800 the last two seasons.

"Harkless can do wonders in pretty much anything he runs," Milholland said. "Beyond that, it's kind of early to tell."

The other potential individual standout on the team could be sophomore sprinter DeShawn Smith, having exhibited his breakaway speed running the ball on the gridiron.

As a freshman, Smith was a major addition to the state-qualifying 4x100, teaming with three seniors. On Tuesday, Smith won the long jump (20-5).

Freshman Brian Haygood in sprints and jumps, and sophomore Austin Mulyck, who took first in the 3,200 on Tuesday in 10:45.50, also figure to be key contributors.

"Obviously going through and winning as many meets as possible," Milholland said of the goals, "and to me county and district are the biggies, and doing well at regionals."

The girls have a few more returnees, including sisters Alicia and Ashley Gentz in sprints, and the county's top hurdler the past few years, junior Bronte Cameron,

There's also senior Zavana Schmit, a two-time All-County high jumper, and sophomore Amelia Schmit, an All-County pole vaulter a season ago.

Seniors Alyssa Deligio and Brianna Horn, part of last year's state-qualifying 4x800, pace the distance crew, though fellow senior Crystal Burchhardt, a two-time All-County pick in the 1,600, is not expected to compete this season due to an ankle injury.

Junior Rita Jarque should be a major factor in the shot put, as well.

"We have the same expectations as we always have," Wilson said. "We want the kids buying into the team concept. We need them to understand everything we do meet to meet is about the team. When we get down to regionals, then we'll focus on what they do best.

"After the first meet we just had, I think we're tough all the way around the board."

Cameron placed first in both the 100 hurdles (16.68) and 300 hurdles (50.97), while Deligio took the 3,200 (13:06.50) and Horn the 800 (2:33.77). Amelia Schmit came in first in the pole vault, though she and Horn both cleared 7-0.

Nature Coast outscored South Sumter, 200.50-110. Still, Wilson said the Lady Sharks must build on their depth.

"I think that's where we're lacking," Wilson said. "I think it'll take a couple weeks to develop the depth we've had the last couple of years.

"We want to win the district. If we're able to go and win the district and advance a certain amount of kids to regionals and states, that'll be successful. If we don't win districts, that'll be on us as coaches, because I think we have the talent."

? ? ?

Since 3A schools cannot begin competing until this week, Springstead has yet to start its season.

The Eagles return a state champion in senior high jumper Bobby Harris, and a Division I signee on the girls side, senior Wilena Little. Both are two-time Hernando Today Athletes of the Year in track.

Harris, after finishing second at states as a sophomore, became just the second state champ in team history last year and maxed out at a school-record 6-9 during the season.

Only two males from the county have ever captured state titles twice in the same event, Hernando's Kevin Fitzpatrick in the discus in 1986 and 1988, and another Leopard known only as Pearson in the FHSAA record books, in the 100-, 220- and 440-yard dashes in 1915 and 1917.

Central's Tikiera Relaford on the girls side in the only county athlete to ever win in back-to-back years, having taken the high jump in 2010-11. So Harris has a chance to become the first boy to pull off the feat.

According to Springstead boys coach Brandon Wright, Harris is beginning to narrow down his choice of college.

"It won't be a distraction. He's just about set," Wright said. "But he's going into the season with a chip on his shoulder. Some of the schools he wanted to go to didn't give him the time of day."

Beyond Harris, the Springstead boys are in a bit of a rebuilding mode. Most of the experience is in distance, with seniors James Amodie and Jai Jackson, plus junior Josh Page and sophomore Jeff Amodie.

"We were very senior-heavy last year, so a lot of what we want to accomplish this year is trying to develop the program," Wright said. "Young or not young, one of the things I'm trying to establish here is don't lower expectations. We're going to come out here and do everything we can to push for a county championship."

The defending county champion Lady Eagles are paced by Little, who signed with Florida International earlier this month.

A three-time state qualifier, the sprinter by trade earned her first state medal by placing fourth in the long jump last spring, behind three seniors. Her season best was 18-4.

"Wilena has a shot at a state championship," Springstead girls coach Joel Myers said. "Of the kids coming back in 3A, she's number one in the long jump, and I think she's number four in the 200. As long as she stays healthy, she'll be a pretty good one."

Little and another Lady Eagle standout, junior Erin Blackwell, have battled injuries in recent years, but Myers said they are fully healthy heading into this season.

Blackwell is a two-time state qualifier in the 800, and will anchor the 4x800.

There's also sophomore Amber Philpott, the county's fastest two-miler last year at 11:55.18 before she went on to shatter local records and garner a state medal in cross country, and was named Runner of the Year for the girls.

However, Myers said Philpott is battling an undisclosed health issue and may not be available at the start of the season.

Senior Ty'Rhonza Harris and sophomore Joy Jackson help fortify the distance group, and senior Chelsea Hollingshead can produce points in the hurdles. Four-time Girls Swimmer of the Year Monica Surrena will compete in track for the first time, running the 800 and 1,600.

The Lady Eagles did take a bit of a hit when two-time All-County pole vaulter Angela Morton opted not to come out for her senior season.

Freshman Raleigh Forbell, though, should provide a boost, specifically in long jump.

"I think we're going to be pretty decent as a team and individuals," Myers said. "I think we'll get more girls to states this year. We're in a different region, thank God."

Springstead struggled to get past a regional meet that featured top teams from Tampa and Orlando, but realignment has alleviated some of that.

Nevertheless, while all other county schools are in 2A-7, Springstead must navigate a higher classification coming out of 3A-7.

"We'll just do the best we can," Myers said. "I don't get too upset about early meets. I think we can compete for team championships in some meets.

"County, it's going to be us and Nature Coast again. Districts, who knows? We're going to get our share of firsts."

? ? ?

Hernando, who finished fourth for the girls and fifth for the boys Tuesday at Nature Coast, has a couple of high-caliber throwers on its collective roster.

Last year, junior Lauren Plaugher threw the discus 116-9 in the 2A FHSAA Finals to finish third, making her the highest-placing female among county state qualifiers.

At Nature Coast this past week, she finished first with a 108-5.

Another junior, Jasha Patrick, made it to states in 2013 in the 400 and could also excel in the triple jump, but beyond those two girls coach Shawanda McCullough admits the Lady Leopards are very inexperienced.

"As a team, being so laden with freshmen and newcomers, who knows?" McCullough said. "I don't see us being at the top, per se. But I can see us being contenders, being somewhere in the middle of the pack."

Connor Foradas went to states in the discus two years ago as a sophomore, and has paced the county in that event the past two seasons. Troy Grant could make a run at states in the hurdles.

"We're going to work hard and let the chips fall where they may," Hernando boys coach Rodney Byrd said. "Our numbers are not going to be up. But you win by quality over quantity at the district meet."

Central has a familiar face running the program, as veteran coach Vic Cervizzi has returned.

An original coach at the school, he spent 15 years there with stints guiding the cross country and track teams, as well as athletic director, before leaving when Nature Coast opened in 2003. He coached the Bears to a state title in boys cross country in 1996.

He also coached in the early days of Nature Coast, where he's still a teacher. He'll retire as of Feb. 1, 2016, and said he wanted to get back into coaching to "go out with a bang."

"I'm having fun again," Cervizzi said. "I want to enjoy my last two years before I call it quits. I want to go out happy doing what I like and what I do best."

At Weeki Wachee, Jon Malandrucco and Chris Landi are both back as boys and girls coaches respectively. The Hornets were fourth for the boys and sixth for the girls in the Early Bird Meet.

Landi believes Jacob Tinch could make some noise in the discus this year, and that both 4x100s and the boys 4x400 should be competitive.

"We want to see how many we can get through," Landi said. "We want to see more make the regional meet and progress to states.

"I don't think we're a major-league program yet. But the kids have been working. We need to keep improving."

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