Going into Friday night’s second-round playoff game, undefeated Nature Coast seemed on a collision course with Green Cove Springs-Clay for an Elite Eight rematch.
But River Ridge had other ideas. Hosting the Class 5A, Region 2 football semifinal, the Royal Knights found a way to stymie the Sharks’ powerhouse offense and handed them a stunning 24-3 defeat.
“It hurts. It hurts,” Nature Coast head coach Justin Worden said. “We’ve got a good group of seniors. They’ve played hard all year. Mistakes finally caught up to us.
“They just caused confusion. It’s the same stuff we talked about before the game, they do a good job running gaps, they move around a little bit. At the end of the day the big thing is you’ve got to confuse the kids and I think they got our kids a little bit, especially up front, and that eliminated us running the ball.”
That the Knights (9-2) upended the Sharks (10-1) was surprising enough. But to hold them to just a field goal was truly beyond any reasonable expectation. It’s the first time Nature Coast has gone without a touchdown since getting shut out by Hernando in 2010.
Prior to facing River Ridge, the Sharks were averaging 43.5 points per contest and had scored no less than 28 points in any one game. They had done that chiefly behind a rushing attack that had generated 3,849 yards and 49 touchdowns.
Yet none of that was on display in this one. On 36 total carries they were limited to 174 yards, led by quarterback Brian Haygood’s 103 yards on 20 rushes. Leading rusher T.J. Owens was held to 12 carries for 45 yards.
While some of that was stout defensive play by the hosts, it could also be attributed to River Ridge’s ability to sustain long drives.
Still it was critical miscues that ultimately cost Nature Coast, starting with the game’s first possession. The Sharks forced River Ridge to punt, but the return near the goal line was mishandled. Anthony Roussos pounced on the loose ball in the end zone to give the Knights a 7-0 advantage at 8:53 in the opening quarter.
“You can’t shoot yourself in the foot, especially in a playoff game. That one hurt,” Worden said.
River Ridge doubled its lead on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Hawks to D.J. Mann with 5:47 remaining in the first half.
The Sharks were able to finally get on the board when Kyle Pierce hit a 24-yard field goal as time expired before the intermission and received the ball to start the second half.
Coming out in the third quarter, Nature Coast pieced together a 14-play drive but was flagged for three separate holding penalties, one of which negated an impressive 60-yard touchdown run by Michael Weston.
The Sharks eventually settled for a field goal attempt, but committed back-to-back false starts to make it a 41-yard try. That kick failed and left them with nothing to show for a possession that ate up a significant amount of the quarter.
“It was huge. That killed us,” Worden said. “If we come away with points there, to me it’s a whole different ballgame, and we just didn’t. It is what it is. You’ve got to give credit where it’s due and they played good defensively all night.”
River Ridge responded with a 4-yard scoring run by Austin Vellucci to go up 21-3 at 1:32 in the third. Michael Webster tacked on a 26-yard field goal with 2:15 left in the game.
Meanwhile, Clay downed Baker County in the region’s other semifinal, 42-14. But instead of playing host to the Blue Devils with a chance to avenge last year’s regional final loss next Friday, the Sharks will head into the offseason.
“It’s definitely a letdown,” Worden said. “We had big aspirations and we’re not going to get a chance to chase them.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.