Hernando (7-3) seeks to snap
21-year playoff drought at
Glen St. Mary-Baker Co. (6-4)
By TONY CASTRO
Nature Coast Technical’s fifth Hernando County and district championships are items for the banquet circuit.
The red-hot Sharks – winners of nine straight – since debuting its 15th season on road with a Week 1, 30-27 setback to Orange Park-Ridgeview, opens the Class 5A, Region II playoffs at Shark Tank Stadium.
NCT is heavily-favored to turn back the Gainesville-Eastside Rams (7-3) before squaring off in a return reengagement a week from Friday.
The Sharks will either face No. 4 seeded Glen St. Mary-Baker County (6-4) or fifth-seeded Hernando (7-3).
Baker County, the defending regional champions, ousted NCT, in 2017, 34-7.
Sharks win 9th in a row
Last Friday in abbreviated schedule, NCT pummeled Bradenton’s IMG-White Academy, 34-10.
In the Sharks’ 25th straight home triumph – its last loss was to open the 2014 season, falling on the final snap of the game to Crystal River, 26-21.
Against IMG White, NCT’s condominium-sized offensive and defensive lines – overpowered the Manatee County gridders.
NCT rushed for a season-high 423 yards of its game-high 503 total yards.
The Brookvsille gridders, who arrive averaging over 430 yards per game, have compiled over 350 yards per game on the ground.
NCT added three more rushing touchdowns – they lead the local circuit with 40.
Senior running back Michael “Mike-Mike” Weston, the 6-foot-2-220-pound sledge hammer, rushed 37 times for 244 yards and secured his 26th and 27th touchdowns of the season.
Weston, who has carried for 64 perfect of the Sharks totes, has ripped off 10 straight 100-yards plus rushing efforts.
Junior quarterback Fabian Burnett added 15 carries for 128 yards while tallying his eighth touchdown of the season.
Burnett, who has rushed for 740 yards typically lulls teams to sleep with 30-plus handoffs to Weston before throwing the football – late in the fourth quarter.
It’s been effective.
Burnett has connected on 51-of-80 for 774 yards and 10 touchdowns without an interception.
His favorite targets include Dedric “Hollywood” Hall with 19 receptions for 309 yards and two scores and Cai Teague with 12 grabs for 263 yards and six TD catches.
Since Issac Edwards was injured (knee) against Hernando, the third rushing option has been sophomore Kinyatta Morgan.
Morgan, a mainstay on defense, averages over 14 yards per carry on offense and has scored three TDs via the rush.
On defense, junior linebacker Anthony Houston paces the Sharks with 111 total hits, including nine for a loss.
Senior Corey Peterson ranks No. 2 with 84 tackles while Morgan looms third with 80 tackles, featuring four interceptions.
Defensive coordinator Charles Liggett’s unit has forced 17 turnovers, including 10 interceptions.
Perhaps it greatest asset, is the Sharks have yielded a county-low eight turnovers.
NCT hasn’t given up a turnover over any of its last three games.
It’s last two turnover tilt was against Citrus, when Weston fumbled and Hall was intercepted on an option pass attempt.
As far as common opponents, Eastside has faced one team the Sharks faced: winless Central.
Eastside walked away with 64-0 nod while NCT eased past the Bears, 55-0.
Leopards vs. Wildcats
While Eastside has never faced NCT, the same goes with Hernando clashing with Baker County.
Peering at their records, HHS’ strength of schedule is 52-50.
Which isn’t much but its slightly better than Wildcats’ combined 49-50 schedule of opponents.
This isn’t the same Baker County squad that finished one win shy of the 5A state crown in 2017.
Baker County has two quality wins – defined as over .500 ledgers and still participating in the playoff – Menendez and Jacksonville-Ribault.
Another opponent, Baker County faced in the season-opener but lost to and is playing in the regional quarterfinals is St. Augustine.
HHS countered with three playoff foes – Littleton, Colorado’s Dakota Ridge, Crystal River, and NCT. HHS went 1-2 against that trio.
Friday night marks the ’Cats 24th career regional/state playoff tilts. The Wildcats are a career 10-13 (43 percent).
The Purple and Gold will be making its 17th playoff appearance. HHS stands 3-13 (18 percent).
Moreover, the Leopards have dropped nine straight playoffs games since solving Inverness-Citrus in 1997 under Bill Browning, 35-18.
After three straight wins, HHS fell in Week 11 at NCT, 35-14.
It needed last week to lick its wounds.
HHS enters averaging 31 ppg and allowing 14.
Offensively, senior fullback Israel “Izzy“ Fields has carried 181 times 1,458 yards and scored 20 touchdowns.
His fumble at the 1-yard line at NCT prevented the Leopards to make it a critical one-score game in the last meeting.
Senior do-everything halfback David Hale Bronson has nearly 1,000 yards in rushing and receiving yards.
Senior quarterback Boston Tafelski has rushed for 292 yards and four scores and has thrown 10 touchdowns against two interceptions.
HHS‘ main receiver is 6-foot-2 tight end Isaiah Brown.
Brown is tied for second in the county lead with 22 receptions, averages over 14 yards per grab and has three TD receptions.
Defensively, HHS is lived on its ultra-quick D-linemen featuring Jaquan Spray and Qwenton Coney and active linebackers Austin McCombs, Bronson Tafelski, Lane Stephens and David Hale Bronson.
As a group, they’re not the biggest team coming off the bus, but are quick to the football.
While NCT has protected the football, HHS has not.
The Purple and Gold has turned the ball over 12 times and forced just 14 turnovers, a plus-2.
Special team gaffes have also filtered through the conversation on the Bell Avenue campus.
“We’re glad to have made the playoffs after losing so many seniors and Coach Vonada last year,” admitted first-year HHS mentor Robert Kazmier.
On confronting a new face in their back yard, “The first thing you notice is they’re a spread team. I’m not sure they’ve faced a team under center as much as we are.
“I’m not quite sure what mindset they were in, when they lost Dunnellon in their last game. To me, they appear well coached and physical. They’re gonna give us their best game.”
In prepping for the Wildcats, “We emphasized being fluid and demonstrating crispness in the attack,” shared Coach Kazmier. “We’ve worked mostly on fundamentals. We also concentrated on special teams. In each of our losses, we’ve made small mistakes; really self-inflicted errors that cost us.
“… I have to give the coaches a lot of credit. We feel we’ve got a great plan walking in,” noted Coach Kaz. “I like making the trip. This is good experience for the kids. Same thing happened when we played in Orlando. Going on the road helps us focus a little more. Even though they (Baker County) graduated a lot of great players, they‘re a quality opponent.”
On the keys to success, “We have to execute early, “ explained Kazmier. “Our strength is our gifted backfield. I’m okay walking in as underdogs. That’s been the case most of the season.
“Didn’t Nature Coast Coach Johns say in the beginning of the season that he didn’t know if Hernando would be here. Well, we are. The staff has done a terrific job of getting us prepared.”