by JOE CARLINO,
HERNANDO SUN SPORTS WRITER
photography by CHERYL CLANTON
Due to Hurricane Michael’s pathway a couple of weeks ago, the Nature Coast Sharks game against the Lecanto Panthers was unfortunately pushed back to October 29, which put the Sharks in an interesting predicament: playing three games in a span of seven days, two of which were district opponents. The Sharks needed to only win one to secure the championship and a first-round home playoff game.
When the weekend concluded, the Sharks would not only win the district, but would run a clean sweep of their opponents.
Riding behind the battery play of senior tailback Michael “Mike-Mike” Weston and junior quarterback Fabian “2Fabe” Burnett, the Sharks (8-1, 6-0) would clinch the district championship by defeating the defending champ and district rival Hernando Leopards on homecoming night 35-14, then travelled to Lecanto on Monday night and defeated the Panthers in a shutout, 36-0.
Below is a recap of each individual contest:
Game One: Friday night, 10/26 versus Hernando Leopards
With the first of two chances to clinch the district title coming on Friday night, the Sharks welcomed the Hernando Leopards to the Shark Tank, Nature Coast took full advantage of the opportunity, sending their fans home happy and putting the Leopards in jeopardy of being eliminated under the points system the FHSAA is now under for football.
In the contest against Hernando, the Sharks outgained the Leopards in total yards (382-221) and had more success in the red zone (NCT:2/2, HHS: 2/3), and had two more first downs than the Leopards (14-12). Both teams also had the same total penalty yards, but the Sharks had more flags go against them (9-6).
“It feels great, being able to win the championship this week than next,” said Sharks head coach Cory Johns after the game. “They (Hernando) came out ready to play, but their opponent tonight was a quality foe.”
Nature Coast was led yet again in yards by Weston, who had 20 carries for 132 yards and two touchdowns, and Burnett, who contributed 124 total yards (86 in the air and a touchdown along with 38 rushing yards). Hernando was led by senior tailback Israel Fields, who had 122 total yards (35 receiving yards and a touchdown and 87 rushing yards with a touchdown and fumble). Also leading the Leopards was senior quarterback Boston Tafelski, who completed 53 percent of his throws (9 of 17 for 82 yards and a score), adding 17 yards on the ground.
“The game was much closer than the (final score) indicates,” stated Leopards head coach Rob Kazmier during the postgame interviews. “We were once again just a few errors from controlling the game. I am very proud of this team’s heart and how they carry themselves; they don’t quit under any circumstances.”
The scoring started early in this contest, but interestingly, it was an uncommon source who saw paydirt. After receiving the opening kick and getting nowhere on the first two plays, the Sharks ran a reverse play that saw sophomore wideout Kinyatah Morgan race untouched for an 80-yard touchdown. A missed extra point saw the Sharks hold a slim 6-0 advantage, which would hold until the second quarter.
In said quarter, Hernando was able to take the lead away from the Sharks, with Tafelski running a bootleg which got the entire Sharks defense to bite, leaving Fields wide open on the far side of the field for a 14-yard score. From there, Nature Coast would score 14 unanswered points, both on rushes by Weston, to take a 21-14 advantage into the intermission.
The second half saw Hernando chew up the first six minutes of the third quarter before Fields would find paydirt for the second time of the contest, cashing in from eight yards out. That would be the final score of Hernando’s night, as the Sharks defense clamped down and prevented any further points for the rest of the night.
Offensively, though, the Sharks were not finished, as Morgan would score his second touchdown of the game on a 25-yard jet sweep, and Burnett finding junior tight end Brian Morgan on a beautiful 33-yard pass for the final score of the game.
Game Two: Monday night, 10/29 against Lecanto Panthers
In the makeup contest between the Sharks and Panthers, Nature Coast capped off the perfect district play with a 36-0 shutout. Burnett would contribute to three of the Sharks’ five touchdowns in the contest, rushing for two scores and finding Dedric “Hollywood” Hall for 35 yards on a screen pass.
In moving to 8-1 on the year, the Sharks won the total yardage battle (302-99), first down totals (8-7), red zone efficiency (NCT: 2/2, Lecanto 0/0), and won the turnover battle 5-0 (three interceptions, two blocked punts). However, the Sharks were also very sloppy in this contest, as many Panthers drives were extended because of unnecessary penalties (in total, NCT racked up 11 for 115 yards, while Lecanto had 4 for 30 yards).
“It is what it is,” head coach Cory Johns stated after the game. “We did what we needed to do, but it wasn’t great by any means.”
Nature Coast was initially set to receive the opening kickoff by losing the coin toss, but in a situation eerily like what transpired between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns on Sunday, the return team did not try to field the ball, and Lecanto recovered the live ball. By rule, a kickoff is considered a live ball if it travels at least 10 yards while still in the field of play. However, the Sharks’ defense held tough following the gaffe, forcing a turnover on downs.
From there, it was all NCT. After their first drive ended in a punt, the Sharks got their first turnover by blocking a punt by Panthers punter Jared Sheley, recovering at the Lecanto 16. One play later, Weston ran left for 16 yards and the opening score, adding a two-point conversion to boot.
The second quarter was all Nature Coast, outscoring the home team 21-0. Weston’s second tally of the game came early, running right for 39 yards with 10:26 left. After this, Burnett decided he wanted to get in on the scoring barrage, and would get the first of his three tallies, taking a read option play for 26 yards just before the second quarter water break. And right before the half, Burnett found Dedric Hall on a bubble screen on the left side, and “Hollywood” raced through the blockers untouched for the score.
Burnett’s final touchdown contribution, which also initiated the 35-point running clock, came with 6:02 left in the third quarter, where he converted a fourth-down attempt from the Lecanto 7.
The Sharks’ regular season slate concludes this Friday night, when they welcome the IMG White Ascenders to the Shark Tank on senior night. A win by the Sharks then would put them in contention for the top spot in the 5A-II region, which would guarantee they would play at home for the duration of the regional play come November. Currently, the Sharks sit at the No. 3 spot, while the two ahead of them are currently held by neighboring county school Zephyrhills and Citra-North Marion. This just makes for a wild finish to the regular season, and that’s all these coaches and students could ask for.