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Sharks Regain Mojo, Handle Hudson at Home

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BROOKSVILLE — For the better part of three innings Thursday night, the Nature Coast baseball team looked as if it was about to slide softly into the postseason surrounded by nothing but negative momentum.
 
Then, the fourth inning rolled around and, well, everything changed just in time for Nature Coast to end its regular season on a high note. Suddenly, the Sharks showed why they are the No. 1 seed in next week’s district playoffs.
 

Trailing by three runs and facing a pitcher that breezed through the first three innings, Nature Coast exploded for an eight-run fourth inning on the way to a 12-3 home victory against Hudson High. The Sharks, 16-6, are the No. 1 seed and will host the winner of Tuesday’s district playoff opener between Central and Weeki Wachee on Wednesday.
 
The victory snapped a two-game losing streak and gives Nature Coast some positive momentum heading into the playoffs.
 
“We lost to two very good teams (Land O’ Lakes and Cypress Creek),” Nature Coast Dan Garofano said. “You never want a losing streak of any kind, so this was a nice win for us. We did a lot of good things.”
 
It just took a little longer than Garofano would have liked. Hudson pitcher Shawn Hicks held the Sharks scoreless and limited them to one hit through the first three innings while appearing to be in complete control of the game. Along the way, the Cobras jumped out to a 3-0 lead.
 
But Nature Coast suddenly came to life in the bottom of the fourth inning. The Sharks combined for four hits and took advantage of two walks and had another batter hit by a pitch.
 
“We got things going and (Hudson) helped us out a little bit,” Garofano said. “But good teams take advantage of opportunities.”
 
The Cobras handed the Sharks plenty of opportunities. Nature Coast scored its first two runs on a couple gifts from Hicks. He allowed a bases-load walk to Bryce Hewell to force in the first and, with the bases still loaded, Hicks hit Joseph Rozsa with a pitch to force in another run. Cody Wright then tied the game with a sacrifice fly to center field.
 
But the biggest hit of the night came from a guy who might be better known for his pitching talents. With the bases still loaded, junior Jackson Hoyt hit a sharp opposite-field single that drove in two runs and put the Sharks ahead for the rest of the night.
 
Hoyt, who already has made a verbal commitment to the University of Florida, served as the Nature Coast designated hitter against Hudson. But he likely will be the starting pitcher in the playoff opener. Hoyt also added his third RBI of the night when he drew a bases-loaded walk in the fifth inning.
 
“Jackson has been a clutch player for us all year both as a pitcher and a hitter,” Garofano said. “He always seems to step up in the big moments.”
 
But Hoyt wasn’t the only Nature Coast player to step up against Hudson. Freshman right-hander Jake Loeffler drew only the second start of his varsity career, but pitched like a seasoned veteran. He struck out four and allowed six hits while picking up the victory.
 
Nature Coast's Raymond Groetsch pitches against Cypress Creek. [Photo by Cynthia Leota]
Nature Coast’s Raymond Groetsch pitches against Cypress Creek. [Photo by Cynthia Leota]
 
“Jake pitched a great game,” Garofano said. “We brought him up from the junior varsity earlier in the year. He’s pitched well in relief, but it’s really nice to have a third starter in those weeks where you have three games.”
 
Loeffler came up just short of a complete game. After getting one out in the sixth inning, he reached his pitch-count limit. Garofano then turned to another young pitcher to close out the game. Hewell, a sophomore right-hander, replaced Loeffler and got the first batter he faced to ground out. Hewell then then put an exclamation point on the win by striking out the final Hudson batter.
 
But the night wasn’t filled with only bright spots for the Sharks. Right in the middle of their fourth-inning offensive outburst, there was a scary moment that could have implications into the postseason.
 
Junior center fielder Joey Vancleave, who has been a fixture in the middle of the batting order, delivered a two-run single to give Nature Coast a 7-3 lead. But Vancleave suffered what appeared to be a leg injury as he came around to score on a single by Dylan Palmer that gave Nature Coast an 8-3 lead. Vancleave started to visibly have trouble running about midway between third base and home plate. He managed to score but fell to the ground and stayed there for several minutes after crossing the plate.
 
It was too early to tell if the injury could keep Vancleave out of the lineup during the postseason.

Patrick Yasinskas
Patrick Yasinskas
I am a sportswriter with more than 30 years' experience covering sports on all levels. I started out covering high schools, but have covered the NFL since 1993. I have won numerous awards, covered more than 20 Super Bowls and have been a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter three times. I began my career covering high school sports in Hernando County, which remains near and dear to me, for The Tampa Tribune from 1990 through 1992.
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