Going into Friday night’s FHSAA Class 5A, Region II final, the Nature Coast Sharks were already enjoying an incredible season. The Sharks, after falling to Ridgeview High in the opener, railed off 11 straight wins en route to usurping the Zephyrhills Bulldogs and North Marion Colts of the top seed in the region.
Unfortunately, though, NCT would have to face off against one of those two squads, welcoming in the Colts to the Shark Tank, with the winner facing off against either Trinity Christian or Bolles in the state semifinals.
And while the outcome probably wasn’t what the Sharks expected, boy was this game full of action.
Given virtually no chance by predictors to win against the Colts, the Sharks would score with 52 seconds remaining, then recover an onside kick and make it to the North Marion 10-yard line before a last second field goal attempt by Mateo Rivera was blocked and returned for a touchdown, losing 29-22 in the first ever region final home game in Hernando County history.
"I know it sucks for (the players) right now, but when they look back on this, they will see this a lot more differently than they do right now," Johns added. "This is a great football team. It just sucks it had to end like this because I felt like we were the better football team."
Nature Coast was led yet again by senior back Mike Weston, who in this contest looked almost superhuman at times. Coming off a down performance against Baker County (who knew all about the Sharks’ patented “Dozer” formation and were able to gameplan for it) he would carry the ball for an unprecedented 44 times, finishing with 288 yards and three touchdowns. Junior quarterback Fabian “2Fabe” Burnett would add roughly 47 yards on the ground and added 60 yards in the air.
The game started off with NCT having to punt the football away, and on their first drive, North Marion quarterback Corey Wilsher found receiver Jyron Gilmore up the near sideline, and despite incredible coverage by the Sharks secondary, was able to score one of the Colts’ three passing touchdowns on the night.
Weston and the Sharks would answer right back, scoring from 11 yards out, but would miss the ensuing PAT, thus allowing the Colts to keep the lead.
After the Colts would rack off 10 unanswered points, Weston and the Sharks offense would go 74 yards to cap off the half, utilizing the fabled fake spike to catch their opponents off guard.
Wilsher’s third touchdown of the night came on the opening drive of the second half, but it didn’t come without help. On third down from inside the Sharks 25, it appeared as though NCT would come away with a stop and force a field goal attempt, but they were flagged for roughing the passer, giving North Marion a fresh set of downs. Wilsher would find his target on the very next play.
When all seemed like North Marion would cruise to victory, the Sharks proved once again why their best football this season came in the second half. Using Weston and Burnett, NCT would chew up the clock before Weston would punch in the third score.
And following the onside kick attempt, the Sharks attempted to get down into field goal range, and while they did, it wasn’t without some help. What appeared to be a game-winning touchdown pass from Burnett to Cai Teague fell incomplete, but the officials ruled pass interference, giving NCT one final chance.
Johns didn’t shy away from pointing out the obvious: “We had the pass interference in the end zone there at the end. (North Marion) did the right thing with the interference or we would've scored there," he said. "All that aside, we had other opportunities during the game. (North Marion) never stopped us. We just stopped ourselves."
The Sharks season now ends, and despite not reaching the desired result, they performed admirably throughout a tough region, and earned their spot in the final. This squad faced adversity multiple times, yet somehow came out on the other side, just showing the mentality of this team. The Sharks will return Burnett and Teague for their senior campaigns, and with Weston finishing his high school career just shy of 3,000 rushing yards, looks like Isaac Edwards will be taking up the mantle. And, like the Sharks have preached this season, it’s all about the #TechWay.