As the Nature Coast boys basketball team celebrated with its district championship trophy Friday night, the school’s girls weightlifting coach, Sharon Elliott, was among the faculty members filing out of the stands. Noticeably hanging from her neck was a silver medal, a reminder of what her own squad had accomplished just a few hours earlier. Yes, it was a good day to be a Shark.
On what turned out to be one of the most significant dates in Nature Coast’s athletic history, Elliott’s crew grabbed the spotlight as the Lady Sharks returned from the Class 1A FHSAA Finals at the Kissimmee Civic Center with two individual state champions, two more state medalists and the distinction of finishing as the state runners-up. “It was a surprise. I really didn’t expect it. Only four girls medaled but they all did great. It’s awesome,” Elliott said. “Feels like it’s been a long season, but they worked hard. It’s kind of like the icing on the cake.”
Nature Coast, which qualified seven lifters to states, finished with 20 team points, behind only River Ridge with 27. An unprecedented team performance within the county ranks was paced by senior Ashley Gentz and junior Samantha Traudt, finishing in first place at 129 pounds and 139 respectively. For Gentz, it was the completion of a sparkling prep career in the sport. This was her third trip to states, and she’s medaled each time. Previously she finished sixth and fourth, both at 129. “It’s icing on the cake,” Gentz said. “Realizing how much work I put in the past four years. All the blood, sweat and tears I’ve put into this sport, and today it paid off.” This time around, she set a personal record with a 170-pound bench press and added a 180 in the clean-and-jerk for a 350 total. Though she missed out on an attempt at her best clean on her final lift, there was little suspense. The next closest competitor was Hailey Crawford from Baker County with 315.
“It feels amazing,” Gentz said. “My bench I’m happy with because I got that PR. My clean, I wish I got my final lift on that one. I’m still happy with how I did... I didn’t walk in there knowing I was going to win because anything can happen. I walked in like any other meet, get my lifts and hope for the best.”
Traudt didn’t win by nearly as wide a margin – only 10 pounds – but her 340 total (160 bench, 180 clean-and-jerk) proved enough to capture gold. “It’s amazing to be able to take first at a state meet,” said Traudt, who established new personal bests across the board. “It was definitely one of my best meets. I scratched on one of my lifts on bench but I still got a personal record. So I’m still happy with it... Having that crowd in front of me and my teammates supporting me gave me the adrenaline to do my best.”
Elliott pointed to commitment to weightlifting as the reason for Gentz and Traudt finding their way to the top of the medal podium. “They’ve worked hard for an entire year,” Elliott said. “They come in over the summer, they work out all summer long. They really deserve it.”
Senior Annelise Rentas and junior Kaitlyn Pierce also collected medals, with the former taking third at 139 (155-165—320) and the latter coming in fifth at 129 (140-160—300). Teammate Jouie Miller, a freshman, missed out on another a medal by one place, falling to seventh via a tiebreaker at unlimited (175-180—355). “It was one of the best days we could have had as a team and individually,” Traudt said. “We didn’t think we’d place second, but when we found out it made the day a whole lot better.”
Hernando senior Paisley Easton also medaled, registering a fifth-place 115-100—215 at 101.
Also on Friday, Nature Coast senior running back DeShawn Smith garnered a prestigious honor, being named to Parade Magazine’s All-America first team. It doesn’t come as a big surprise, considering Smith led the nation in rushing yardage (3,715) and touchdowns (a state-record 66). However, Smith admitted he was unfamiliar with the honor until finding out he made the team.
“It’s feels pretty good. I had never heard about it before,” Smith said. “I was pretty shocked.”
Earlier in the week, it was announced that Smith had committed to Savannah State University, a Division I Football Championship Subdivision program out of Georgia. Though Smith did not go through with a formal ceremony on Wednesday’s National Signing Day, he said he did sign all the necessary paperwork to make it official. “I’m all about family. They’ve got a great family structure,” Smith said. “The academic structure, I think that’ll be pretty good. I like the setup real good. They’ll take care of me up there. I like the atmosphere.”
Then came the Class 5A, District 7 boys hoops finale at Hernando High, pitting top-seeded Nature Coast against third-seeded Crystal River. The Sharks failed to maintain a 16-9 advantage after one quarter, going 1-of-17 from the field in the second period to trail 21-19 at the half. Caleb Bray’s miraculous 3-pointer while falling down at the horn provided the Pirates with a 39-33 edge going into the fourth quarter. But led by 11 points from Nick Crima and eight from Kaine McColley, who went a combined 12-for-12 from the foul line in the final period, the Sharks rallied back for a 53-46 triumph.
“Nature Coast always finds a way,” Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik said. “In the past we’ve always found a way and I think it comes from our preparation and how hard we work in practice and doing some of those things.
“These guys are tough. They don’t like to lose. So when it comes down to the end, I’m pretty confident our guys are going to be able to come through, which they did tonight. I think we’re very fortunate to get out of here with a win.”
Though Crima and McColley took care of the scoring late, and totaled 15 and 16 points respectively, Jordan Baxter was a force throughout scoring 11 points to go with 16 rebounds and three blocks. His last board came with 36.6 seconds remaining, an offensive rebound of a missed free throw that allowed the Sharks to maintain possession with a five-point lead. On Wednesday in the 5A-7 semifinals, the Sharks (21-6) defeated fourth-seeded Hernando, 52-38. Crystal River (17-10) had upended second-seeded Central in the other semifinal, 67-62 in double overtime.
As for the tournament host Leopards (8-19), they routed fifth-seeded Citrus on Tuesday, 61-46. Central (18-9) had defeated Weeki Wachee on Monday, 66-50. This marks the fifth straight district title for Nature Coast, and the sixth in seven seasons. The Sharks are headed to regionals for a seventh consecutive year, and will host Wesley Chapel on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Springstead lost its semifinal game of the 6A-8 Tournament to Mitchell on Wednesday at Land O’ Lakes, 48-40, finishing 9-13 overall. Hernando Christian Academy went down in the opening round of the 2A-4 Tournament on Monday at Ocala-Meadowbrook Academy, falling to Seven Rivers Christian, 53-46. The Lions ended up 5-14.
The HCA girls, however, kept their sensational season alive, hosting Jacksonville-Eagle’s View in a 2A-Region I quarterfinal on Thursday. Buoyed by an early 16-4 lead, the Lady Lions etched their first-ever regional victory, 46-29. “It’s great,” HCA head coach Mike Drummond said. “Getting a district championship was a dream come true and this just adds to it. I told the girls, ‘Look, we get the district championship, the rest of it’s gravy. Let’s just go have some fun, see how far we can go.’
“The key to this game was getting off to that fast start. We wanted to take advantage of the fact that they had to make a long trip, obviously. We wanted to get off to a fast start and the times that we’ve gotten off to a fast start we’ve always done well. We hit a couple key threes there and I think that got us that momentum going.”
Cayla Phillips, who led the team with 18 points to go along with eight rebounds, knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in the first quarter to set the tone. Shyann McElwain and Milly Jackson dominated on the glass with 12 and 10 rebounds respectively, and each had three steals. McElwain also blocked two shots. Next up for the Lady Lions (16-4) is a Tuesday semifinal at home against Ocala-St. John Lutheran, starting at 7 p.m. That matchup bodes well for HCA, which has beaten the Lady Saints three times already this season, including last week’s 2A-4 final, 41-28.
In another Thursday tilt, a 6A-II quarterfinal, Springstead fell in the first regional contest in its history, losing to host Seffner-Armwood, 55-54. Behind some hot outside shooting from sophomore guard Reagan Huden, the Lady Eagles (16-9) rallied from a 12-point deficit in the third quarter and nearly completed the comeback. Huden had 16 points.
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.