NCT’s first return to
Final Four in 7 years
By TONY CASTRO
Just over seven years ago – March 1, 2012 – Nature Coast Technical’s boys basketball program reached its apex.
That’s when the Sharks fell at the hands of the Jacksonville-Terry Parker Braves at The Lakeland Center during the Class 5A state semifinals 74-49.
It marked as the final prep game of Tyler Bergantino’s illustrious prep career.
Just as he had done for four seasons, the 6-foot-9 Bergantino finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Finishing 29-2 that season, NCT was expecting to be a regular at The Show.
Seven years later, the Sharks bounced back from a humbling last-second, buzzer-beating loss by Crystal River in the 6A-7 finals at Lecanto, to string together three regional wins in a row for the program’s second regional title.
So after piecing together stout road wins over favored Holiday-Anclote, Crystal River and Palatka, what do the Sharks receive? An invitation to face Class 6A’s No. 1 ranked program – Fort Lauderdale-Stranahan – in the state semis in Polk County.
The survivor faces the winner between St. Petersburg-Lakewood (6-2) and Jacksonville’s Paxon Golden Eagles (25-3) at 7 p.m. Thursday for the 6A state title.
Dragons are loaded
Stranahan had losing records in 2015-16 and 2016-17 before Edward Waters College graduate Terrence Williams flipped the script in Broward County.
Since taking over, the current 38-year-old skipper has guided the Dragons to back-to-back district titles and pair of the regional appearances.
On a team with nine players six-foot or taller, the Dragons have plenty of tools in the tool box.
The projected starting lineup features one senior – point guard Brian Dugazon – and four juniors including: Daquion Vickers, David Heard, Chayse Culpepper and Inady Legiste.
Chayse and his brother, Houston, are sons of former UCF and Minnesota Vikings standout Daunte Culpepper.
Legiste is a specimen, listed at 6-foot-6 and tips the Toledos at 225 pounds.
As far as offers, Dugazon is mulling an offer of UNC Ashville, Heard is entertaining offers from Toledo and Dartmouth while Legiste is pondering whether to attend Albany State.
The Dragon’s strength of schedule is also impressive – the state’s toughest in Class 6A.
The Sharks understand the mountain they’re attempting to climb Wednesday night.
NCT’s 12th-skipper David Pisarcik explained the challenge ahead of his ball club, “When you get to the RF Funding Center, it’s a tough game no matter who you play. With Stranahan, it’s a whole different level.
“They’re very similar to Palatka in athleticism, they play it several different ways. They can pound the ball inside to two different guys, their point guard makes things happen and can penetrate and also kick the ball back out. I’m very impressed watching them on film,” noted Pisarcik, who arrives 284-67 lifetime, seeking his first-ever Final Four victory.
On what stands out, “They have tremendous speed in transition. It’s hard to simulate in practice,” said Pisarcik “They’re strong at every position.
“Stranahan has won in different ways because they can do a lot of different things,“ added Pisarcik. “For us, we’ve got to be able to limit their dribble-drive penetration. There’s no secret, we’ve gotta play our best game.“
As far as depth, when Cocoa outlasted Springstead in the state finals a decade ago, the Tigers wore the Eagles down.
In facing Stranahan, “They probably go 7-8 deep on their bench. But if the game dictates for them to go deeper, they will. They’re so talented, it’s hard to prepare for.”
In contrasting who’s better, Terry Parker in 2012 or Stranahan this year, “That’s a good question,” responded Pisarcik. “We had a veteran team that had played together with Rohan (Blackwood) and Blake (Lowman) and Tyler (Bergantino), so we had some horses. We felt we were due to win a regional with that older group.
“This team is different. With this team, there was so much potential if we all could be playing our best ball at the same time,” shrugged Pisarcik. “Trouble is, we haven’t. Right now, we’re playing at a high level together.”
On the Final Four after three regional victories, “Our focus came back after we lost to Crystal River,” pointed out Pisarcik. “That loss (35-33 at Lecanto) wasn’t the end all. We were fortunate in wasn’t during the first round of regionals. We had time for a playoff run and have continued to play at a higher level.”
NCT arrives with three of Hernando County’s top 10 scorers in senior Robert Gomez (17.8 points per game), junior Orien Adams (16.8 ppg) and senior Brandon Clarke (10.7 ppg).
The 6-foot-4 Adams appears to be working for Windex, cleaning the glass backboards at an incredible clip – 16.8 rebounds per game.
As far as defensive presence, Adams ranks third in the circuit in blocked shots at 1.27 per game.
Offensively, Gomez leads the county in assists (4.4 apg) and serves as the circuit’s third-best foul shooter at 73 percent.
Clarke paces the circuit in foul shooting at 76 percent while the Sharks have never been bashful about taking three-pointers.
NCT arrives with three of the county’s top four behind-the-arc shoots in Gomez and Clarke (59 triples apiece) and Philip Scalise (50).
Unlike during the district tourney, the Sharks are much healthier.
“We were definitely not al full strength during districts,” shared Pisarcik. “We’re fortunate to be much better now.”
Pisarcik’s No. 1 goal is simple: to compete.
“I just want our guys to say they did everything they could to win this game,” he said. “Games like this in this stage don’t just happen to anybody. It’s a big deal for one of our teams to come here. It’s taken us seven years to get back. I hope we don’t take it for granted.”
On what Pisarcik has asked of his seniors, “I told them we were playing in the last week of the season. That’s everyone’s goal. On Monday, there’s no more basketball practice for anybody – that’s what makes this game so special. I told ’em, they can look back at this game for years to come and say they played the No. 1 team in the state.
“…When we walk in and see the fans and hoopla, I don’t want our guys to be happy to be there,” insisted Pisarcik. “I want them to be there and compete.”
2019’s Road to “The Show”
Class 6A, District 7
Boys Basketball Tournament Recap
@ Crystal River
Crystal River 68, Weeki Wachee 46
Hernando 68, Citrus 51
Central 60, Lecanto 57
Crystal River 65, Hernando 36.
Nature Coast Technical 50, Central 39
Crystal River 35, Nature Coast Technical 33
Class 6A, Region II
@ Crystal River
Crystal River 56, Zephyrhills 44
Nature Coast Technical 46, Anclote 43
Class 6A, Region II
@ Crystal River
Nature Coast Technical 67, Crystal River 35
Palatka 61, Eastside 60
Class 6A, Region II
Nature Coast Technical 60, Palatka 53
Class 6A, State Semifinal
@ Lakeland’s RF Funding Center (formerly known as The Lakeland Center)
Nature Coast Technical (24-6) vs. Fort Lauderdale-Stanching (25-6), 8 p.m.
AT A GLANCE
WHAT – Class 6A, State Semifinals Boys Basketball Tournament.
WHO – Four teams in a single-elimination event featuring: Jacksonville-Paxon Golden Eagles (25-3) vs. St. Petersburg-Lakewood Spartans (26-3), 6 p.m. and Nature Coast Technical (24-6 overall) vs. Fort Lauderdale-Stranahan Dragons (25-6), 8 p.m.
WHERE – RF Funding Center, 701 W. Lime Street, Lakeland.
WHEN – Semifinals set for 6 and 8 p.m. on Mar. 6.
AT STAKE – Top two semifinal winners advance to the Class 6A, Championship at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Mar. 7.