Photography by Cheryl Clanton
In the last three seasons of high school baseball in Hernando County, two teams have stood out: The Nature Coast Sharks and the Hernando High Leopards.
The two schools have managed to scratch and claw their way to meeting up in district play the last two seasons, facing off for the district championship.
And in meeting No. 3, the same result transpired.
Facing off against a Hernando team which has consistently given NCT fits in the regular season, the Sharks survived a brutal third inning (more on that below) to deny the Leopards the glory, winning 6-3 and securing a third straight district championship for the school.
Nature Coast starter Jonny McMath was credited with the win, while Dylan Mulyck recorded a three-inning save. For Hernando, their freshman starter Dylan Duphily was credited with the loss.
Nature Coast head coach Frank Vitale, in his fifth season at the helm, was satisfied with the win, but wouldn’t leave out credit to the opponent. “Hernando has been a tough opponent for us, and we’re a tough opponent for them. Our matchups are always competitive from start to finish. Tonight, the team with the most depth won.”
The scoring started early for both teams. In the top of the first inning, senior Anthony Urso laced a single and then scored on a double by sophomore third baseman Connor Morgan. Not wanting to be outdone, following an opening walk by Duphily to senior center fielder Zach Funkhouser, the undisputed team MVP for the Sharks, J.P. Gates, rocketed the third offering to him out to dead center for a two-run homer. When asked later about what he saw, Gates replied “The pitch was a fastball, low and away, but the way I swung the bat resulted in the point of contact being right on the barrel.”
After a scoreless second inning, the third inning proved to be the turning point. In this inning, McMath unfortunately couldn’t find the strike zone of the home plate umpire, as evidenced by the inning sequence going like this: four-pitch walk to Preston Black, six-pitch walk to Carson Lashley, eight-pitch strikeout to Duphily, four-pitch walk to Urso, Black scoring on a wild pitch, six-pitch walk to Morgan, six-pitch sacrifice fly for Legg which scored Lashley, and a four-pitch pop out for David Hale Bronson. In total, McMath endured 38 pitches, which doubled his pitch count to that point.
Following two more scoreless innings, the Sharks added two insurance runs, one in the fifth and one in the sixth, to put the game out of reach. The seventh inning for Hernando was the only instance for either team in which a one-two-three inning occurred.
Because this was a district championship game, both the Sharks and the Leopards are guaranteed entry into the FHSAA baseball tournament, Class 5A, Region II. The first matchup for both teams are on Tuesday night at 7:00, with the Sharks hosting the neighboring district runner up Taylor Middle-High School Wildcats, while Hernando must travel to Orlando for a meeting with the Bishop Moore Hornets. If NCT and Hernando win, then a Sweet 16 matchup would be at NCT on May 15th, with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.
CLASS 5A TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE:
5/8/18 @ 7:00
5A-7 CHAMPION NATURE COAST SHARKS V. 5A-8 RUNNER UP TAYLOR WILDCATS
5A-8 CHAMPION ORLANDO BISHOP MOORE V. 5A-7 RUNNER UP HERNANDO LEOPARDS