With the school year coming to a close in Hernando County, the time has come to reflect back on the 2016-17 prep sports season.
Success was spread out, with all six FHSAA-sanctioned schools boasting at least one district championship team, and the county had an Elite Eight squad in all three seasons, fall, winter and spring.
Here are the top three stories from the past 10 months of action:
1. Rivera overcomes adversity for state crown
It certainly wasn’t a shock that Springstead senior wrestler Richie Rivera collected a state championship back on March 4, during the Class 2A FHSAA Finals at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee.
What wasn’t anticipated was the terrible circumstances that would surround that meet for both Rivera and his team. The Eagles had barely had time to settle in upon arriving the night before the two-day tournament began when Rivera’s father, assistant coach Richard Rivera, suffered a stroke.
Going back and forth between the hospital and the arena, the younger Rivera somehow maintained his focus, going 4-0 to claim the title at 113 pounds. In the final he pinned Brandon’s Trey Lane, who won a state championship at 106 the previous year, in 5:06.
“It was amazing,” Springstead coach Bob Levija said afterward. “It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced, that he could stay that focused and wrestled the way he did.
“He wrecked everybody. He was just really on.”
Nearly three months later, Richard Rivera is still working to overcome the complications from his stroke, according to Levija.
2. Smith shines in spotlight
Back in 2015, as Nature Coast running back DeShawn Smith put together one of the finest seasons in state history, it was difficult for his cousin, Central’s De’Vonta Smith, to garner the notoriety he deserved.
With his cousin having graduated, the stage belonged to De’Vonta Smith and the senior delivered with a state-leading 2,913 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns, leading the Bears to a 6-4 record, their first winning campaign since 2007.
Smith ran for at least 376 yards five times over the course of the season, including a single-game county record 491 yards (and county-record tying eight touchdowns) against Weeki Wachee on Sept. 23.
For his efforts, Smith was a Parade All-American honorable mention selection and signed with Division I Appalachian State.
“It was good. I had a lot of big numbers,” Smith said at the end of the season. “I had a lot of fun and I’m going to miss high school football. It meant a lot to me. I loved everything about it and I’m going to cherish all of it, wins, losses and otherwise.
“In the offseason I set a goal for myself that I would lead the state in rushing yards. So I made sure I worked hard enough, and every game I went out there and worked extra hard to get where I’m at now.”
3. Central, Nature Coast take boys hoops rivalry to next level
In the span of 10 days, Central and Nature Coast’s boys basketball teams produced perhaps the two most monumental intercounty games in Hernando history.
The Bears hadn’t won a district crown since 1997, hadn’t defeated the Sharks in 17 tries dating back eight years, and Nature Coast hadn’t lost a single game all season when the two rivals met in the Class 6A, District 7 title game on Feb. 11 at Citrus High.
A raucous crowd that made its way to Inverness witnessed Central pull of a stunning 67-59 victory, a mere precursor to a Sweet 16 rematch on Feb. 21.
Never before had two county foes met in a regional contest, and the atmosphere reflected the historic occasion. There was a deafening, standing-room-only crowd in the Bears’ gym that night, when the Sharks gained redemption with a 70-48 win that was far more competitive than the final score indicates.
“We’re still district champs,” Central head coach Matt Zandecki said that night. “This one hurts, but they can’t take that away from us. We still get a trophy. Nature Coast is going for a regional championship, that was one of their goals. But we took away one of their goals, one of their goals was to win a district championship.”
“District championship was a tough loss,” Nature Coast forward Kaine McColley said. “They knocked us down, but we knocked them out.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.