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Monday, Mar 30, 2015

Sharks, Leopards a study in contrasts


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One team has made a habit of winning this time of year. The other hasn't done so in almost half a century.

Nature Coast and Hernando, less than a week after squaring off in the Class 5A, District 7 final, head into 5A-Region II quarterfinals tonight at 7 p.m.

That much they have in common. Their histories, though, are quite different.

The Sharks (20-7), thanks to their 59-44 victory in the district championship game, host 5A-8 runner-up Gulf (16-11), while the Leopards (15-6) travel to 5A-8 champ Tarpon Springs (26-3). The winners will face in Tuesday's semifinals.

This marks the fifth straight season in which Nature Coast has advanced to regionals, and in the previous four trips they've never lost in the opening round, en route to the county-record eight regional victories they've compiled during that span.

Conversely, there's Hernando. The Leopards are in regionals for the first time since 2004. However, the last - and only - time they've captured a postseason contest outside of the district tournament came in 1967.

Back then Hernando defeated Ocoee, 50-47, in a Class B regional semifinal, which was at the time the first round.

For some perspective, that incarnation of Ocoee High School hasn't existed for almost 40 years, having been converted into a middle school in 1975. A new Ocoee High opened in 2005.

If it seems stunning that a program that's existence spans so many decades has gone so long since its most recent regional triumph, it pales in comparison to Tarpon Springs' drought.

The Spongers collected their first district title since 1978 last week, skirting by Gulf, 66-65 in overtime.

As for their last regional win, that came in 1947, a 48-38 victory over Cantonment-Tate in what was simply called the first round of the Class B playoffs.

So this much is guaranteed: one massively long losing skid is coming to a close.

"I told them (the players) this is a unique opportunity they have," Hernando head coach Jeff Laing said.

The Leopards had won eight of their past nine, including a 63-47 victory over the Sharks on Jan. 16, before stumbling in the 5A-7 finale that was tied early in the fourth quarter.

"I think we've rebounded from that loss against Nature Coast and addressed some concerns from that game," Laing said. "I think one, we need to have a better effort on 50-50 balls, and I think we need more scoring out of (point guard) Mark Wilson."

The junior Wilson, the team's leading scorer this season, was limited to five points by the Sharks.

Tarpon Springs is paced by 6-foot-4 junior Scottie James, averaging 17.6 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. He can score from outside having hit on 34 3-pointers.

Another junior, Trai Halton, chips in 17.2 points, 3.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds, and has knocked down 63 shots from beyond the arc this season.

Junior Damarian Gulley has only played in the past five games, yet is averaging 13.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.2 steals, and another 6-foot-4 junior, Mitch Wilcox, puts in 10.0 points and 5.7 boards per contest.

"I think it's two similar teams," Laing said. "We've just got to play with the confidence we had in the Wesley Chapel (district semifinal) game (53-49 win) and didn't quite have in that Nature Coast game. We'll see if we can get past that and play our best.

"They've got pretty steady guard play and they've got guys who are bigger post players that stretch you out a little bit. They're not back-to-the-basket-type guys.

"We need to take care of the basketball. Make good decisions in transition offense and I think good things will happen for us."

Nature Coast

The most intriguing matchup for the Nature Coast-Gulf clash might actually be on the sideline.

Sharks head coach Dave Pisarcik gets to go head-to-head with his mentor, Gulf headman Travis Priddy.

Priddy guided Nature Coast for three seasons from 2004-07, compiling a 37-36 record highlighted by a 20-7 mark and the program's first regional appearance in 2006-07.

He then left for a job at Savannah Country Day School in Georgia, before coaching at Tampa-Freedom from 2009-11 and arriving at Gulf last season.

Pisarcik's relationship with Priddy dates back to his playing days at Armstrong Atlantic University in Savannah, where Priddy was an assistant coach.

He would join Priddy's staff at Nature Coast in 2005 and replace him as head coach two years later.

The two still keep in contact, Pisarcik said, though he downplayed going up against Priddy.

"That's definitely something, but in my mind it's just another game," Pisarcik said. "Winning a district title, we're happy. We're in a good spot right now. We're playing well. We were able to beat a Hernando team that's been playing pretty well in the second half of the season, and being able to hold the trophy, we were pretty excited about it."

Though the Sharks and Buccaneers haven't faced this season, they've crossed paths in summer leagues, and the two coaches would figure to have insight into one another's philosophies and rosters.

At 6-foot-5, senior forward James Grubb, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds in the 5A-8 title tilt, commands plenty of attention, and Pisarcik also pointed to seniors Joey Nickerson and Andre Wilson as players the Sharks must keep tabs on.

"They've got size and athleticism. I think their guard play is pretty strong," Pisarcik said. "Gulf is definitely a team we're taking seriously and we know we have to play well."

With no dominant squad looming in 5A-II, a fourth Elite Eight appearance in five years and a second Final Four trip in three aren't out of the realm of possibility for the Sharks.

Though they've dropped two games to Citrus and another to Tarpon Springs, perhaps the two favorites in the region, Nature Coast has received a considerable boost in the return of senior power forward Rohan Blackwood.

The Sharks are 9-0 when the two-time All-County selection plays, as he provides considerable size, skill and strength in the paint to complement fellow big man Cody Bergantino, as well as guards Jordan Burkes and Carlos Clemente.

"I think the four teams left on this side (of the region), any team can beat anybody on any given night," Pisarcik said. "It's just who comes to play and plays well that night. Hopefully the ball bounces our way."

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At a Glance

What - Class 5A, Region II quarterfinals

Who - Gulf Buccaneers (16-11, 5A-8 runners-up) at Nature Coast Sharks (20-7, 5A-7 champions); Hernando Leopards (15-6, 5A-7 runners-up) at Tarpon Springs Spongers (26-3, 5A-8 champions).

When - Thursday at 7 p.m.

At Stake - Winners will meet in next Tuesday's 5A-II semifinals.

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