For the better half of the 2017-2018 varsity basketball season in the North Suncoast, one headline came from right here in Hernando County: “Could Nature Coast erase the sting of losing the district championship to county rival Central last season?” While it is true that NCT won when it mattered most last year, defeating Central on their court in the Sweet 16, that feeling of hosting the regional playoffs means so much to these young athletes. Like most years in the past, NCT entered the tournament as the #1 seed and the favorite to win, with almost every other team still playing catch-up. Such was the case this year, as the Sharks easily dispatched. So, when NCT and Central, who defeated Crystal River in the other semifinal game, matched up for the second straight year, one could expect a great matchup with neither side giving an edge.
That would be the case Friday night.
With both teams proving why they’re the top-tiered teams in the FHSAA Class 6A, District 7, Nature Coast saw Central take an early first-quarter lead on a last-second shot by senior guard Caleb Johnson that cashed in with the bank, then gained steam and never looked back, defeating the host Bears 57-38 to regain their place on top of the mountain. This win marked the 7th overall district championship under coach Dave Pisarcik, who continues to leave a legacy in this county for his dedication to continued success.
As a unit, Nature Coast shot 50 percent from the field (14 of 28) and 42 percent from deep (5 of 12). The team also shot 83 percent from the free throw line (15 of 18). For Central, they also shot 50 percent from the field (13 of 26) and from the free throw line (9 of 18), but only saw one of their six three-point attempts go through (17 percent). Turnovers were also crucial, as Central committed 15 turnovers, most of which were five-second violations, while Nature Coast had only 7, most of them being the result of offensive fouls.
Normally for the Sharks, the team has been led in scoring by either senior guard Robert McAfee, whose ability to draw double teams with his unpredictable methods opens shooting lanes for his fellow teammates, or sharpshooter Austin Rivera, who consistently hits long range shots like they’re a layup. This game, however, saw another point guard lead the team, with 16 points coming off the hands of Esteven Lopez (3 of 6 from the field, 7 of 7 from the line). Lopez in previous games this season has unfortunately had some lapses with his passing game, leading to missed opportunities offensively. This game, however, he proved why when the chips are down, you can count on him to help his team in any way possible.
For the host Bears, their team had two individuals who scored the same number of points: guard Brian Eck and forward Isaiah Brown, who each scored a team-high 12 points (Eck: 6 of 7 from field; Brown: 4 of 8 from field, 1 of 1 from deep, and 1 of 2 from the line). Despite both scoring the team high points, Eck contributed to a third of Central’s total turnover number.
For Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik, this win was a statement for his guys. “We definitely gotta give credit to Central. They came out and played hard… really gave us a challenge. I feel like we’re fortunate to come out with the win for sure, but these guys are a family; when one is down, they pick each other up. We’re going to sleep on this tonight, and then it’s back to work because now is when it counts”.
Since this game was a district championship, both teams are guaranteed entry into the 2018 FHSAA Class 6A regional championship tournament. Both teams will play on Thursday night, with Nature Coast hosting the neighboring 6A-8 runner-up Zephyrhills, while Central will travel to the 6A-8 district champion Ridgewood. Both matchups are rematches of last season, just in the opposite location from last year’s tournament. The winners of those two matchups will face off next week on February 27th. There’s a quote that Pisarcik uttered five years ago that he still preaches to his team today in these kinds of games, primarily because of the importance of the quote: “These games are win-or-go-home, and the teams that lose these games are the ones that break mentally. You’re going to see teams and strategies that you’re not familiar with; it’s up to you to keep your calm and not break, because these guys, they’re real sharks- once they smell the blood of your fear, they’ll strike.”