Justin Worden made a name for himself the past three seasons at Nature Coast, guiding the Sharks to the best two-year football run in county history.
But Hernando County isn’t truly home, and the chance to return to his alma mater proved an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. So on Thursday, Worden stepped down as Sharks’ head coach to take the same position at Titusville-Astronaut.
“It was definitely a difficult decision. We definitely have things rolling at Nature Coast,” Worden said. “It’s a lot different situation (at Astronaut) from the one I stepped into over here. But from a family standpoint, this was the right decision for me.”
Worden graduated from Astronaut in 2004 and grew up in nearby Mims. His father was a longtime assistant coach at Astronaut, and much of Worden’s family still resides in the area.
He’ll be taking over for his former coach, Randy Hallock, who is retiring after 19 seasons at the helm. However, the War Eagles are coming off a 2-8 campaign.
“There’s a lot of history there,” Worden said. “It’s important going in that I stick to what I do and build my own legacy, while keeping in perspective what he accomplished.”
Though his tenure was brief, he certainly left his mark on the Sharks. The team had failed to make the playoffs for four straight seasons when the first-time headman arrived. Nature Coast went 6-4 under Worden in 2014, missing out on a postseason berth when it lost in a three-way tiebreaker.
The Sharks left nothing to chance over the next two years, going a combined 19-0 in regular-season play while collecting back-to-back district championships.
In 2015, running back DeShawn Smith was the headliner, pacing the nation in rushing yards and touchdowns while leading Nature Coast to the Elite Eight.
Even with Smith gone this year, the Sharks were dominant once again before a stunning 24-3 regional semifinal loss at River Ridge last month.
“It speaks highly of the kids and them buying in,” Worden said. “That’s one of the things that I tried to make sure I emphasized with them. I think I’m a good coach, but I didn’t make a single play. They did that.
“The Nature Coast program is bigger than Coach Worden, it’s bigger than any single payer. The program will kind of maintain. I told them, if they keep doing what they should be doing, there’s no reason they shouldn’t continue to have success.”
But the program will move on under new leadership. In addition to Worden’s departure, defensive coordinator Dustin Adkins has taken a job at his alma mater, Hawthorne.
Though Christmas break will complicate the process, Nature Coast athletic director Kristin Peeples said the school hopes to move quickly in finding a replacement for Worden.
“He told me if the (Astronaut) job came open, it was one he would apply for. His ultimate goal was to get back to where he was from,” Peeples said. “His family is there. There’s a lot tied into it. He was very upfront and honest about it. I respect the fact he wants to go back where he was from.
“He just did a great job. He’s a good coach. There’s nothing bad you can say. It’s a big loss for us, it really is.”
With Worden and Adkins leaving, Peeples noted that the school will have two physical education teaching positions to offer, which would make it easier for the next coach to add a top assistant to the staff.
Considering the Sharks’ recent run, there doesn’t figure to be any shortage of applicants.
“Our goal (in hiring Worden) was to bring someone in to take us to the next level, and he did that. Now our goal is to bring someone in to bring us to another level,” Peeples said. “Our record speaks for itself. It’s a pretty high-profile job, I would think.”
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.