Going into Thursday’s pivotal 5A-7 matchup between the Nature Coast Sharks and the undefeated Hernando Leopards, Hernando was attempting to do something that hasn’t been done in three years: dethrone the “Crew from California Street” of the title. A win not only would’ve continued Hernando’s undefeated season, but clinch the district title and a FHSAA home playoff game in two weeks’ time.
Once the game concluded, Hernando (6-1) just couldn’t close the door.
Relying almost solely on their triple option play and stout defense, the visiting Sharks (6-2) walked into historic Tom Fisher Stadium and, as an 11-point underdog, left with a 3-point upset, 13-10. First year head coach Cory Johns, when asked about the feeling of ending an undefeated season for the Purple and Gold, said “All week long, my guys had no doubt about who was going to win. We’re (NCT) and they’re (Hernando). We know who’s going to win.”
Turnovers and penalties led to some very undisciplined play early in the game. NCT finished the game with 8 penalties for 52 yards, while Hernando finished with 9 for 50 yards. Fumbles were also in effect early; NCT had 4 and lost 1, while Hernando lost both of their fumbles. Two of the Sharks’ fumbles were on early drives that were stalled due to a high snap by the center, and the offense couldn’t make up the lost yardage.
On the penalties for both teams, it was clear that the referees wanted to let the players be physical, as there were a few late hits by NCT and some defensive pass interference calls that were missed. Coach Johns was understanding of close plays, saying “If it’s close and on the sidelines, I’m not going to yell at you for that.”
For the Sharks, their running attack continued its dominance over the county and district. Junior tailback Mike Weston, noted for being a workhorse this season due to his undeniable dominance on the field, carried the ball 30 times for 171 yards and two scores, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. According to Coach Johns, who had a back like Weston last season, the credit wasn’t just on Mike, but the offensive line as well. “Our offensive line, specifically (Jesus)Torres and (Louis)Miele, did a phenomenal job keeping our guys up, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. This is how I love to play football.”
And for Hernando, their running game kept pace with NCT, keeping the game close. A week after thoroughly pounding Central 56-6, where almost every play went for 20+ yards, the Leopards had 4 against NCT’s defense. Their biggest play came from senior wide receiver Ygenio Booker, who took a jet sweep running right to left from midfield and raced for a 50-yard touchdown with 9:54 left to play.
Hernando had a chance to tie the game late following one of the only defensive pass interference flags, called on Sharks cornerback Dontay Washington, but the drive stalled inside the NCT 10-yard line, and a 26-yard game tying field goal by senior kicker Luke D’Ambrosio that was right down Broadway was just short. NCT would run out the clock shortly after.
For NCT, this win was huge going into their final game of the season Tuesday night at home against county rival Springstead. A win on their field would not only clinch another county championship for the Sharks, but according to Coach Johns, would “put NCT into the playoffs regardless of what transpires elsewhere”. For Hernando, they play Lecanto on Tuesday, who just lost to Citrus 48-0 and gave the Hurricanes their own county championship.