Last Friday night, Nature Coast defeated in-county rival Central to clinch their seventh district championship under head coach Dave Pisarcik. Entering yet another FHSAA regional tournament, the Sharks had the benefit of being able to host the first round on their court per FHSAA bracketing procedures. Their opponent in the first round was the Zephyrhills Bulldogs, a team that has history with NCT due to previously being in the same district for a several years and famously defeating the Sharks a few years ago on said court en route to a state semifinal appearance.
And on Thursday night, that almost happened again.
After a shot by Cartrell Strong went in and gave Zephyrhills a 53-52 lead with under three minutes left in the game, Nature Coast would score from the free throw line the rest of the game, 2 by junior Robert Gomez and 2 by senior Robert McAfee, and barely squeaked by a furious Bulldogs team, 57-54. The win guaranteed yet another appearance for the Sharks in the Sweet 16, which is no surprise to many fans of Nature Coast because under Pisarcik’s tenure, the Sharks have only failed to reach the Sweet 16 once, losing to Dunedin in the first round back in 2015.
For the Sharks as a unit, the team shot 8 of 17 from the field (47 percent), 8 of 16 from three-point range (50 percent), and 17 of 21 from the line (81 percent). For the visiting Bulldogs, the team shot 23 of 40 from the field (58 percent), 1 of 8 from long distance (13 percent), and converted all five of their attempts from the free-throw line. Both teams were aided by key shooting from their top players, NCT receiving a game-high 25 points from McAfee and Zephyrhills gaining 23 from their 6-foot 7-inch senior center Kurt Robbins. Robbins was on fire throughout the game, as evidenced by 20 of his points coming in the first half, allowing Zephyrhills to take a 35-29 advantage into the half.
For Pisarcik, he wasn’t about to just take the win without giving heavy credit to his opponent. “These guys we played tonight, they’re unbelievable. We’ve had some great games against this school, and their coach (Mike Novak), he runs a phenomenal program. We knew coming in that #24 (Robbins) was an animal, and he proved it tonight. Offensively, we had some missed opportunities that I’d like to get back, but we made it through tonight, and now it’s on to the next game.”
And despite the final score, the game could’ve easily gone the visitor’s way. At the start of the second half, the Bulldogs came out incredibly cold, failing to convert on a basket for better part of five minutes. What followed next was an incredible turn of events that saw multiple lead changes and kept everyone invested. However, the main incident that ultimately hurt the Bulldogs came in the final seconds of the game. Running their patented full-court press, which is something a Pisarcik-led team has notoriously struggled against, an inbound pass to Gomez appeared to be a clean play, but a foul was called and sent him to the line, where he converted both attempts and gave NCT a 55-54 advantage. Moments later, Zephyrhills committed their first turnover of the second half, a steal by McAfee with 3.6 seconds left, and he would convert his two attempts to set up the final score. A last-second heave by senior guard Anthony Antoine fell short, and the host Sharks barely survived.
Because this game was in the regional tournament, Nature Coast advances once again to the second round of the FHSAA playoffs, and will now host neighboring district champion Ridgewood on Tuesday night. The Rams advanced this far by defeating the Bulldogs in their title game and then soundly defeated Central 71-44, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the final time in school history (the school is closing this May). A win by either team will advance them to the regional finals on March 2, where they will be required to travel to either Eastside High School (just outside of Gainesville) or Palatka High School (in between Jacksonville, St. Augustine, Orlando, and Gainesville). If confusion exists as to why either NCT or Ridgewood must travel, per FHSAA bracketing procedures: “In the regional championships for 5A through 9A and boys’ and girls’ soccer, the school on the top line of the bracket in each game shall be designated the host school. If, however, the school on the top line of the bracket served as a host school in the regional semifinals and the school on the bottom line of the bracket was a visitor in the regional semifinals, the school on the bottom line of the bracket will be designated the host school for the regional final. In any case, when a district champion plays a district runner-up, the district champion always shall be designated the host school. NOTE: the host school line position (top line or bottom line) alternates each year; what initially begins on the top line this year will alternate to the bottom line next year.”