Dog fight expected for the top rung of Class 6A, District 7 ladder

Central High’s Caleb Johnson (25) challenges a Citrus High defender in the 2017 6A-7 quarterfinals at Citrus High. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
Springstead junior, Sincere Torain (11) attempts to layup against Superior Collegiate Academy during the Springstead Basketball Classic sponsored by Gators’ Dockside. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO
HHS’ Ygenio Booker sizes up a free throw against East Bay. Photo by JOE DICRISTOFALO
NCT’s Robert McAfee drives upcourt. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

Springstead will have

its hands full competing

in rugged 7A-8 Tourney


Hernando County’s five public hoops programs have begun to wade through its 2017-18 schedule.

The ultimate goal is to reach the FHSAA State Finals set for March 5-10 at The Lakeland Center in Polk County.

The last Hernando County squad to reach the coveted Final Four was in 2012 by Nature Coast Technical.

The last local team to reach the State Finals tilt was F.W. Springstead against Cocoa in the 2009 4A finale under Pat Kelly.

Bears: 6A-7 crowded at the top

The Central Bears, under alumnus Matt Zandecki, stunned NCT in the 6A-7 finals at Inverness-Citrus, 67-59, for its initial district championship since 1997.

The Sharks returned the favor in the regional semifinal before one of the largest-ever crowds at the Bears’ Den, 70-48.

CHS graduated six seniors off its fine 20-10 edition last winter. Four others chose not to return to the squad.

Zandecki’s eighth team features six returning lettermen: seniors Brian Eck, Caleb Johnson, and Lynndell Hudson; juniors Justin Merced and Vince Valencia and sophomore Isaiah Brown.

Central High’s Caleb Johnson gets fouled attempting a layup  versus Crystal River. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

Returning starters include: Johnson – the county’s leading scorer in 2016 at 19.8 points per game, No. 1 three-pointer shooter (90 treys) and No. 2 foul shooter (82 percent) and No. 4 in steals (1.53 spg) and Eck (9.87 ppg).

Personnel losses have stripped CHS of 65 three-pointers (34 percent), 984 points (51 percent), 167 made free throws (52 percent) and 301 free throws attempts (59 percent).

Newcomers include seniors P.J. Moss, Nick Lesnick and Eric Oliver; juniors Victory Miles and Theo Escarment and sophomore Rashaad Boyce.

Oliver and Escarment arrived as transfers from Hernando High while Miles played for Hudson-Fivay last season.

The Ken Austin Parkway cagers split its two preseason affairs besting Bishop McLaughlin (74-66) before losing to Anclote (66-63).

Matt Zandecki

“I enjoy coaching this group,” explained Hernando County’s defending Coach of the Year Zandecki. “We’re trying to mesh some new kids. Even though we lost Devonta (Smith), Sam (Garner) and Andrew (Krienes), I’m hoping we won’t miss a beat.

Brian Eck Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

“Eck will have an even better season than last year and Caleb is unbelievable player. He’s probably the most underrated player in the area. … Lynndell is back too. He’s a lot like Joe Condron was for us back in the day. He’s a huge presence in the paint, who can pass.”

According the Zandecki, he’s trying to compensate the most in the loss of senior leadership. He readily admits last year’s seniors had a little swag by the end of the season and also knew what was expected from them.

The team’s strength, according to Zandecki, is the Bears’ ability to shoot the ball behind Johnson and Eck. If we execute, he said, that’ll give other opportunities to other players.

In the preseason, “We tried a lot of different things,” revealed Zandecki. “It allowed me to see where are kids are at.”

Schedule-wise, by playing against Dunnellon, Anclote and Springstead outside of its 6A-7 foes, “We know we have to bring it everyday to the court,” detailed Zandecki.

As far as the county scene, “Nature Coast is always good. Weeki Wachee is much improved. Hernando has some athletes and I think Springstead has a chance to win it,” shared the Bears’ mentor.

“As far as 6A-7, we’re glad to be hosting districts,” he said. “I like our chances. I think we have a good shot as long as we max out our potential.

“Nature Coast is the team to beat. They got that transfer from Spingstead (Robert Gomez) and (Robert) McAfee is a great player, too,” described Zandecki. “Listen, I’ll put Crystal River right up there too.”

On how Zandecki would spell success, “We have to start better than we did last year (6-7),” he said. “We’d like to start jelling from the beginning. We’d like to get better earlier. Injuries are always a concern. We’ve got some depth; but every coach would like a little more.”

NCT: Goal remains the same

In the tenth season of hoops under David Pisarcik, the Nature Coast Technical Sharks enjoyed a county-leading 27-2 campaign last winter.

The highlights included a 25-0 run to open the season celebrating holiday titles at Hernando High and at home.

NCT added the Hernando County title sweeping its local brethren 8-0 before being upset by Central in the 6A-7 finals in Citrus County.

That loss snapped NCT’s streak of six straight district crowns.

Faced with entering the regional playoffs on the road, the Brooksville-based cagers rebounded to eliminate 2015 Final Four foe Zephyrhills (53-48) at The ’Dawg House and Central (70-48) before traveling to Palatka for the 5A-II final.

The Putnam County-based Panthers ended NCT’s journey, 53-48.

Since then, the Sharks graduated three starters and saw four others opt against returning.

Kaine McColley
Jordan Baxter

Commencement exercises claimed 2017 Hernando County Player of the Year Kaine McColley, professional glass cleaner Jordan Baxter and the county’s leading free throw shooter, Anthony Valante, at 89 percent.

The personnel losses have accounted for a loss of 1,211 points from last winter, or 65 percent of the offense.

To duplicate last year’s statistics, NCT must recoup 133 three-pointers (58 percent), 280 converted free throws (63 percent) and 402 free throws attempted (65 percent).

The burden of posting its 11th straight winning campaign under Pisarcik falls on five returning lettermen: seniors Jacob Caban, Austin Rivera, Esteven Lopez, Dheron Barnes and Robert McAfee.

Robert McAfee Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

McAfee, who averaged 10.0 ppg and shot 80 percent from the charity stripe and Rivera, who pumped in 9.67 ppg, and poured in a team-best 71 three-pointers, serve as the Sharks’ returning starters.

Newcomers include Robert Gomez, an All-County selection last winter as a sophomore at Springstead, juniors Matt Perez, Saajad Steward and Brandon Clarke, senior Diego Clemente and sophomore Orien Adams.

Looking back to last season, Pisarcik says he misses his senior leadership.

Robert Gomez

“Of those three kids, two are playing at the next level and Baxter is in the Army,” he said. “This group is trying to figure things out. The big question is will we be able to do it now?”

NCT opened the season edging out Crystal River in Citrus County, 48-45, before dismantling new-look Weeki Wachee, 63-16.

“We’re gonna be depending on guys with very little big-game varsity experience. Adams will be replacing Baxter; those are big shoes,” revealed Pisarcik. “We have to mold these guys into our personnel, but have the same results.

“I definitely like the competitiveness. We continue to have high expectations,” stressed Pisarcik. “They want to continue the legacy left behind by the others.”

David Pisarcik Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

Pisarcik points to his team’s ability in shooting the rock as his team’s strength.

“Rivera and McAfee can shoot the ball. If we live and die by the three-pointer, we don’t have as many weapons, so we’ve gotta find other ways to attack inside,” insisted the veteran mentor.

“Our greatest concerns revolve around experience,” shared Pisarcik. “A lot of these guys didn’t have to step up last year. The more we win the rebound battles, that will improve our chances to win.”

Schedule-wise, NCT believes its holiday tournament will be its best-ever.

“It’s probably the best field we’ve ever had,” pointed out Pisarcik. “The majority of the 16 teams all went deep in the playoffs last year. The teams that are coming are fast and quick. It’ll be a real test.

“Our schedule really helped us last season. A good schedule is all about where you end up. And we ended up the Elite 8 last year,” noted Pisarcik.

Despite all the new faces in the Columbia blue & black uniforms, Pisarcik insists the chemistry is there.

“We had a good summer and have made adjustments,” said the NCT coach. “The kids understand what it takes to win. They know how to win; now it’s time to execute. The major question will be did we lose too much?”

When Pisarcik eyes the county scene, he admits “It’s the most balanced its been in years. Springstead is senior dominated and will contend in 7A-8 for the title. Central will start three seniors and Hernando is almost entirely seniors.

“For most of these teams, this is the year to make a major move. We’re gonna start three seniors, so we’re all at the same level. In the county, anybody can beat anybody else on any given night.”

In sorting out 6A-7, “Crystal River has gotten better. They have probably the most complete team,” said Pisarcik. “Central may have the best scorer in Caleb (Johnson). Citrus and Hernando will have something to say about who wins or loses. Any one of four teams could win 6A-7.

“We hope everyone stays healthy. We’ve gotta find different ways to win,” emphasized Pisarcik. “The definition of success at Nature Coast never changes. For us, playing in the district championship and heading to the (regional) playoffs is what this is all about. Otherwise, it’s a failed season.”

Leopards: No shortage of talent

Hernando High opened last winter at 3-1 before dropping 9-of-10 and never recovering, finishing 8-18.

Muhannad Abdaldean Photo by JOE DICRISTOFALO

The Leopards graduated three players including its leading scorer Muhannad Abdaldean, who averaged almost 16 points per game.

In all, HHS lost just over as third of offense. The Purple and Gold needs to muster 535 lost points (36 percent), including 41 treys (40 percent) and 86 converted free throws (31 percent).

The Leopards return six lettermen including seniors: D’Rae Duckworth, Josh McKenzie, Tavis Drake, Noah Batten, Arthell Williams and Ygenio Booker.

Returning starters feature: Batten, Booker and Williams.

Hernando High’s Ygenio Booker advances up-court against Crystal River in the Class 6A, District 7 Tournament at Citrus High. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

The 6-foot-4 Batten averaged 11.2 ppg while the 2017 All-County selection Booker ranked fourth in points scored at 13.4, led the county in steals (2.62), ranked second in assists (4.35), and ranked fourth in rebounds (5.88).

Though Williams averaged 7.08 ppg, he must improve on his dismal 43 percent shooting from the foul line.

Newcomers include: Weeki Wachee transfer, senior Ian Hornung, who averaged 10.6 ppg, and classmate Tim Barber, juniors Dakota Jernigan, Wesley Wilson, Zafaybien Williams and sophomore Jacob Batten.

Jeff Laing

“I like this year’s kids,” pointed out 11th-year skipper Jeff Laing. “The core group of guys started with as freshmen, so system-wise there’s no problem. Even though had seven football players, we shouldn’t be behind rhythm-wise. I see nothing but positives coming from the football guys playing for us.”

In terms of what HHS misses most from 2016-17, “We’re gonna miss Mo’s (Muhannad Abdaldean) scoring ability. I think we have other guys that will step up,” noted Laing. “Ygenio is our engine. We’ll go as far as he goes. He knows, we know and everybody else knows were dependent on Booker.

“But the development of Noah and Jacob Batten and A.J. (Williams), especially shooting from the outside is crucial,” shared Laing. “We’ve got to do a better job on not giving up the ball and getting offensive rebounds. We have to lessen the other team’s opportunities to score.”

The biggest concern revolves around on its chemistry.

“How do we assimilate the new faces?” queried Laing. “Hornung is a lunch pail-type guy. He’s a solid high school basketball player, who loves to play. He could really help us; he knows his ability.

Jacob Batten

“Another big contributor could be Jacob Batten. At 6-foot-4, he’s athletic and could be a huge difference maker. He has the potential to score inside or out,” said Laing.

In the county, “The Springstead kid coming off the ACL injury (Zack Meyer) could really help them,” Laing said. “That’s a solid group already. Caleb Johnson at Central is the key for everything for Central. I think Nature Coast is going off their pedigree.”

According to the Leopards’ schedule, it’s very balanced and should really help the Leopards prepare for 6A-7 play.

“I see Crystal River as the front runner in the district,” shared Laing. “They’ve got a couple of transfers, which will help. Johnson will be the best player on the court and Nature Coast has a pattern of success in the postseason.

“At Citrus, success will revolve around Badger and Looper.”

On Hernando’s fortunes, “The formula is still the same for us. We’ll go as far as Ygenio takes us. When you have one of the better basketball players around, that creates open looks for others. Guys like Noah, A.J. (Williams) and Wesley (Wilson) need to knock down some open looks and we’ll need Noah, Drake and Hornung to control the glass.”

Laing spelled out what a successful season would be, “For this group, they want to make the (regional) playoffs. We’ve got 25 games to make success. Everything comes down to the district tournament.”

Hornets: Pressing reset button

After dropping its last 18 straight games, Weeki Wachee finished the 2016-17 season at 2-22 under Mark Lee.

Lee stepped down after the season.

Enter former college coach Rick Scruggs.

Rick Scruggs

Scruggs, the program’s third coach is three seasons, comes from Mars Hill College, NC.

He was previously the head coach for 15 years at NCAA D-I Gardner-Webb. During his time there, he had notable wins versus Kentucky, Minnesota, Colorado State and East Carolina.

Scruggs collected nearly 400 career wins as a head coach, including the NCAA D-II title at Gardner-Webb in 1999-2000 season.

The new US-19 cage coach is facing a rebuilding job.

The Hornets graduated seven seniors leaving the cupboard basically barren. WWHS is trying to compensate for the loss of 856 points or 83 percent of its total offense last winter, including 133 free throws made (85 percent).

WWHS returns three lettermen – all juniors – Christian Ortiz, Dejoin Haines, Enrique Brown.

There are 12 new faces on the varsity roster featuring: seniors Hunter Doan, Kyle Brandis, Kyle Houghton and Max Wright; juniors DuJoin Haynes, Caleb White, Jason Murray, Joe Bowermaster and Justin Foster; along with sophomores David Rosario, John Mangarillo and Michael McMurray.

Scruggs, who is ESE instructor, credits Lee – the school’s athletic director – on selling WWHS’ program.

“I like building things; some are hard, some are easier,” explained Scruggs, who relocated to the Sunshine State along with his wife. “The program intrigued me. When I visited, I loved the area.“

Scruggs, who’ll commute from nearby Homosassa to WWHS, “We’re working on basics,” offered Scruggs. :Changing the program’s culture comes in stages; it’s not done overnight. I’m hoping the kids believe in what we’re doing. My expectations are for the kids who want to be here.”

In Year 1 on the US-19 campus, “Every day is a learning experience,” offered Scruggs. “We had some stretches of success, but the kids lose focus and get tired. We’re building from the three returning players.

“… Overall, we’re not real big. We don’t have much size, but I can’t control that,“ said Scruggs. “Success will be based on whether the guys buy into what we’re selling.”

Eagles: Aiming to take next step

Springstead showed glimpses of success last winter reeling off a five-game win skein and taking 4-of-5 games prior to 7A-8 semifinal’s heartbreaking loss to Land O’ Lakes, 55-54.

SHS graduated five players from its 14-10 squad of a year ago.

Third-year skipper Matt McGarry’s team will attempt to muster the loss of 772 points from its personnel losses (55 percent), 98 three-pointers (60 percent), 128 converted foul shots (52 percent).

Zack Meyer
Sincere Torain

SHS returns six lettermen including: seniors Zack Meyer, Randy Morgan, Jeffrey Cotnoir, Phil Merrill and Keaton Skinner; along with junior Sincere Torain.

The Eagles return three starters in Morgan (4.13 ppg), Torain (6.79 ppg) and Cotnoir (9.5 ppg).

SHS newcomers include: senior Klayvon Clark, juniors Justis Korth-Loder, Jarrell Fenty, Jerome Langley and Jacorey Hartman, and sophomore David Battle and freshman Unique Torain.

“I see a group that worked really hard during the summer,” envisioned Coach McGarry. “Jeff has been with us four years, this is Sincere’s third season. The guys understand what we want.

“What I like most about this group is they don’t get too high or too low,” noted McGarry. “They just want to compete. “We miss Parker, Gomez and Torkelson. Parker broke the mold; he could do so many things well. … Gomez really fit the system and Tokelson was a fine shooter.”

Of the new guys to watch, McGarry singled out Unique Torain.

“He’s got a motor like Randy Morgan,“ noted McGarry. “He plays the game hard and has been a model player.

Springstead Head Coach, Matt McGarry gives instruction to his players during a timeout in the Springstead Basketball Classic sponsored by Gators’ Dockside. Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO

“The biggest strength of this team is a our versatility,” shared the SHS mentor. “We could go with big or small lineups. Our biggest concern is making sure our guards don’t get into foul trouble.”

On the county landscape, “Weeki Wachee should adjust well with a new coach,” said McGarry. “Central is just fine; they’re coming off a district championship. It goes without saying that Nature Coast is the county’s team to beat and (Coach) Laing at Hernando knows how to coach.”

As far as the Eagles’ schedule, “We’ve got Trinity Catholic, Plant and our county teams will be a good test to help us prepare for our district opponents,” noted McGarry.

On 7A-8, “It‘s been rough since we’ve been in this. Mitchell has always been tough,” described McGarry. “(Land O’ Lakes) Coach Puhalski didn’t get to 400 wins by accident. …At Sunlake, even they’re jayvee team is humungous. It’ll be a shootout every night against these guys.”

McGarry isn’t deviating from his goal, “We want a district championship. It’s time to make the jump. We’ve come within two buckets in each of the past two years of advancing.

“Success will be based if the guys believe in the system. We’ve got to stay the course. If we’re holding hardware at the end of the season, the season will be successful,” added McGarry.

By the Numbers: Central Bears

           Central Bears

Graduation losses: 6

Returning Lettermen: 6

Returning Starters: 2

Seniors: 6

                    Hernando Leopards

By the Numbers:

Hernando Leopards

Graduation losses: 3

Returning Lettermen: 6

Returning Starters: 3

Seniors: 8

By the Numbers: Nature Coast Technical Sharks

       Nature Coast Technical Sharks

Graduation losses: 3

Returning Lettermen: 5

Returning Starters: 2

Seniors: 5

                           Springstead Eagles

By the Numbers:

Springstead Eagles

Graduation losses: 5

Returning Lettermen: 6

Returning Starters: 3

Seniors: 6

By the Numbers: Weeki Wachee Hornets

                Weeki Wachee Hornets

Graduation losses: 7

Returning Lettermen: 3

Returning Starters: 2

Seniors: 4



– Compiled by TONY CASTRO


Caleb Johnson                                          Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO











Johnson, Caleb





McColley, Kaine





Abdaldean, Muhannad





Booker, Ygenio





Valante, Anthony





Gomez, Robert





Krienes, Andrew





Batten, Noah





Garner, Sam





Hornung, Ian




* Denotes Hernando County leader.


All-County Boys Basketball Team

– Compiled by TONY CASTRO

Kaine McColley                                                                            Photo by JOE DiCRISTOFALO








Johnson, Caleb




Booker, Ygenio




Valante, Anthony




Gomez, Robert




Baxter, Jordan




Abdaldean, Muhannad




McAfee, Robert




Player of the Year – Kaine McColley (Nature Coast Technical)

Coach of the Year – Matt Zandecki (Central)


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