On Friday night, Sept. 1, 2023, the Nature Coast Tech Sharks (2-0) blanked the Hernando Leopards (0-2) 27-0 at Tom Fisher Stadium. This being the first time Head Coach Robert Kazmier had coached against his former team since being tasked with leading the Sharks, it was a homecoming of sorts for the first-year coach. The Leopards would have preferred to have made his return anything but enjoyable on the field. It was not meant to be. A tight, low-scoring affair in the first half gave way to a barrage of big plays late for the visitors.
The Purple and Gold are still searching for their first points of the season, as they were also shut out 52-0 in their home opener against the Hudson Cobras. The opposite is true for Nature Coast, as they have now only allowed 14 points over their first two contests. The Sharks’ defense looked prepared while playing on the road despite extenuating circumstances. With Hurricane Idalia barreling down on the state of Florida just a few days prior, Coach Kazmier and company had little time, but they made the most of the time that was given to them.
“With one day of practice, there is a lot of concern to have,” Coach Kazmier said. “So, we made the best out of this week. We got our practice in yesterday. You know it is hard to really gameplan in one day because, usually, you have your film day and your rehab day… We had to do that and the actual practice all in one day. So, you’ve got to have a little more urgency getting that stuff in, which doesn’t really hammer it home.”
Neither squad could find much success early in the matchup. There were a few sustained drives that ate up the clock in the first half, but strong defense and a heavy dose of the ground game kept zeroes on the board as the end of the half neared. The visitors would eventually punch it in from short yardage with RB Christian Cromer after a five-plus minute drive left 3:04 until halftime. The drive, which heavily featured Cromer throughout, was spurred on by a critical 4th and 7 conversion in which QB Jackson Hoyt scrambled and threw for a first down to WR/TE Donovan Neal.
Only down 7-0 at the break, the Leopards were set to receive the second-half kickoff and looked to get the momentum back. Their opening drive would stall, though, and the team in the Columbia blue helmets rattled off another long, clock-chewing drive punctuated by an 18-yard Hoyt touchdown pass to Neal. The receiver high-pointed the ball over a Leopards’ defender in the endzone to give Nature Coast the eventual 14-0 lead.
Head Coach John Scargle’s squad would make one last push with a drive that started early in the fourth quarter. On their most promising drive of the evening, RB John Capel III toted the rock on several plays, as he had all night. Assisted by a long pass from QB Michael Saltsman to WR Leandre Wright, Hernando found themselves at the Nature Coast 14-yard line before a pass intended for WR Angel Garrastequi fell incomplete at the goal line.
The Sharks took over on downs, and the Leopards ran out of steam. The visitors appeared poised to run off more time and salt the game away on the ground with Cromer and Hoyt. Instead, Nature Coast’s next drive was a quick one. On the second play of the series, Hoyt would break a long run up the middle for an 83-yard touchdown. Now, an unlikely comeback for the Leopards became untenable. The Sharks were not done either. ILB/SS Connor Riggins made a smooth interception early in Hernando’s next drive before Christian Cromer scored the final touchdown on a 25-yard scamper up the middle.
Coach Kazmier has been pleased with his defense’s performance over the first two weeks of the schedule, but he sees one glaring area where his squad needs to improve: slow starts on offense.
“The score ended up being all right,” Coach Kazmier said. “That first half was unnecessarily stressful again. We got to stop waiting until the second half starts to get going. Last week was the same thing. We scored most of our points in the second half, which it’s uncomfortable. We can’t do that against some of our big-time opponents.”
Looking ahead to next week, the Leopards will aim to put points on the board as they travel to take on the Citrus Hurricanes on Friday. Kazmier and company will hope to “get healthy” and avoid another sluggish start when they host the Springstead Eagles next Friday at the Shark Tank.