BROOKSVILLE- There hasn’t been a game in quite some time that’s quite caught the attention of prep football fans in Hernando County like Thursday night’s Class 5A, District 7 meeting between Hernando and Nature Coast at Tom Fisher Stadium.
The last time Nature Coast lost to an in-county opponent was 2014 against Springstead in a 23-20 affair early in the regular season. Fast forward to 2017 and the Sharks are in a precarious spot after losing a crucial district contest to Inverness Citrus 37-27 on the road. It’s made this Thursday’s game that much more meaningful.
“I think the kids get it, but any game you go into you should have more fire to win,” Nature Coast coach Cory Johns said. “They shouldn’t want to have that same disappointment like we did last week. Right now we have to control what we can control and beat Hernando.”
On the flip side, Hernando is enjoying a 6-0 start and by far the most success the program has seen under Bill Vonada during his four years with the Leopards. The Leopards have their eyes on the prize in punching their ticket to the Class 5A state playoffs, but realize the road starts and ends with Nature Coast.
“They’re the defending district champions and until someone takes it away from them,” Vonada said. “We’re going into it as we’re 0-0. The toughest games are a line ahead. Nature Coast is a proven competitor. We just feel like if we’re doing what we need to do, we can compete with anyone on our schedule.”
Hernando has done what it has needed to do on its end, as the Leopards are coming off a 56-6 thrashing of Central and Vonada’s club has played inspired. The Leopards are averaging 286 yards rushing per game and are led by Israel (543 yards) and Isaac Fields (247 yards) on the ground. Through the air, quarterback Boston Tafelski, who has thrown for 514 yards and eight touchdowns to zero interceptions.
“I think it would be validation for the hard work we’ve put in over the last four years,” Vonada said about if Hernando can clinch a playoff spot. “There’s some programs that just show up on Fridays and play. We play with a lunch pail mentality. We always look at the next game as the most important one. We can seal our ticket to the playoffs.”
Nature Coast is currently averaging 324.8 yards per game on the ground and have one of the top rushing offenses in the area. Leading the way for the Sharks is quarterback Fabian Burnett, who has 659 yards. Sharks’ running back Michael Weston has been nearly as impressive, rushing for 582 yards.
“We’ve got to be more physical on defense,” Johns added. “We played too soft on defense (versus Citrus). We usually go and set the edge. That was the difference. If we can play physically, we will have a chance. If we don’t, we could be in trouble.”
Andy Villamarzo can be reached at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @avillamarzo.