Central High School
By Chris Bernhardt | Hernando TodayWelcome to life without Tyler.
Published: November 17, 2012
Published: November 17, 2012
That reality faces the Nature Coast program as it prepares to embark on the 2012-13 season, its first since the departure of the core group that guided it to unprecedented heights within county history.
The Sharks are coming off only the second Final Four appearance by a local club, and a three-year streak of at least reaching the Elite Eight.
Only two county teams had ever advanced that deep into the postseason previously, and none had done it more than once.
But graduation finally took its toll on Nature Coast. The Sharks are missing a big piece – literally – in the 6-foot-9 Tyler Bergantino.
The reigning three-time Hernando Today Player of the Year now wears a UMass uniform.
Likewise, four-year starting point guard Blake Lowman is off playing for Florida Southern. Gone, too, are classmates Donovan Ingram, John Parker and Caleb Martin.
So what's left for the Sharks? At the very least, a hope that they've started a winning tradition instead of simply having experienced an unusual peak.
"Our goals are the same," said Nature Coast head coach Dave Pisarcik, entering his sixth year at the helm. "Every year we expect to win a championship.
"We want to get to the top two in our district. The guys are working hard. The guys want to prove we can win."
The Sharks, 27-2 a season ago, are not devoid of talent. Of the five players who started in a state semifinal loss to Jacksonville-Terry Parker, one remains.
Junior power forward Rohan Blackwood enjoyed a steady rise in 2011-12, having transferred in from Gulf, where he was a double-digit scorer as a freshman.
Though touted as a major addition, he initially came off the bench as he was assimilated into the Nature Coast system.
By the end of the season, his athleticism and 6-foot-5 frame made him a difference-maker and a fine complement to Bergantino in the post.
He earned All-County honors, averaging 8.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
"Rohan's plate gets a little bit bigger," Pisarcik said. "He's a key returner from that Final Four run. A lot is expected of him. He needs to be more consistent on the offensive and defensive end.
"With Tyler being gone and that team being gone, it'll be more balanced scoring. They'll be more guys we'll have to rely on."
Senior Vic Davila should also be considered a returning starter, having gotten the nod at one of the guard spots while Ingram came off the bench until late in the postseason.
A true point guard, Davila averaged 3.3 points, 1.7 assists and 1.3 steals, knocking down 22 three-pointers. Now, though, he won't have Lowman to share the load.
"Obviously our offense is going to change a little bit," Pisarcik said. "There's not a 6'9" kid in the paint that we run everything through. There's no Blake Lowman, a college point guard, that can run the offense.
"Obviously we'll go through a changing period. We'll take our lumps. But the guys want to prove they can play at a high level. It's my job to get them ready to play."
Players such as senior forwards Wyatt Hessler and Yamil Marrero, or sophomore guards Andrew Parker and Jonathan Thomas will have a chance to step into the spotlight.
In order to repeat as Class 5A, District 7 champion, Nature Coast likely must once again knock off Eustis.
Last year's 5A-7 runner-up Panthers were stunned in the regional quarterfinals by Hudson, but return their top three scorers with another year under their belts.
"We don't want this year to be considered rebuilding," Pisarcik said. "We want to be a championship-level team. We want to compete for a county championship. We want to compete for a district championship. We've got to do the right things to be in the position to compete for those types of championships.
"This is a critical year. We think we're a great basketball program. We want to produce every year and that's what great programs do. We feel like we're at that level."
With Nature Coast undergoing so much change, it could open the door for someone else to break the Sharks' grip on the county.
"Overall I think Nature Coast, losing all those kids, they went down," Central head coach Matt Zandecki said. "But I still think the rest of us in the county are chasing them."
Zandecki's Bears, off their first winning season since 2003-04, might have the inside track in that race.
Central (13-11 in 2011-12) did lose its best player, All-County guard/forward Rudy Robinson, to graduation. But it returns virtually everyone else.
That includes three key seniors, shooting guard Joey Stokes (11.5 points per game), center Troy Stewart (10.2 points, 6.3 rebounds) and point guard Daniel Robinson (6.9 points, 4.1 assists, 3.2 steals).
"We're definitely optimistic," said Zandecki, in his third year. "We definitely want to build on last year.
"Last year we lost eight games by a total of 13 points. This year we hope to grow up a little bit and be able to capitalize on close games."
One of those tight contests the Bears dropped ended their season. A 55-52 loss to Ocala-West Port in the 6A-6 semifinals came down to missed free throws at the end.
Central came that close to pulling off an upset of the district's first seed and earning a regional berth, raising the bar for this season.
"I think everybody's goal is to win a district championship," Zandecki said. "On top of that, make the state playoffs. That's our expectation this year.
"Last year the kids got a taste of winning. They've worked hard in the offseason. I think we're starting to get a good reputation around the area. I really think we can compete with any team in the area."
Zandecki believes junior Sinjin Blaha (2.2 points, 1.0 steals) can fill the void left by Rudy Robinson.
"He's our best defender," Zandecki said. "He's probably one of our best athletes. Last year he didn't play much because he was Rudy's backup. I told him, 'You've got to be this year's Rudy.'
"The key to our season is Troy Stewart. At times he looks like the best thing on the North Suncoast. Other times, he makes mental mistakes. We need him to be more consistent."
It was the 6-foot-6 Stewart's season-ending right ankle injury that threw the Bears into a late slump last season, after a 9-2 start.
Central has at least one believer outside the program, in Springstead's new head coach, Tim Plumadore.
The Eagles are also part of 6A-6, and with West Port, Lecanto and Citrus all dealing with various personnel upheaval he thinks the Bears have an opening.
"Central is the only team with everybody coming back, the same coach," Plumadore said. "The dynamic hasn't changed there very much. I think Central is the team to beat."
Of course, Plumadore does have significant ties to the Bears, having played for them and graduated from Central in 2006.
He was an assistant coach in Zandecki's first year before moving to Springstead and filling that same role last season under Craig Swartout.
Now the 24-year-old wants to provide some stability to a team on its fourth head coach in as many years.
With a new house two miles away from campus, and a young family, Plumadore stressed his desire to stick around.
"I'm rooted in Hernando County," Plumadore said. "I don't plan on going anywhere any time soon. The kids know that. They feed off of that."
His work as an assistant football coach under veteran headman Bill Vonada has also taught him a thing or two about how to build a program.
The Eagles desperately need to lay down a firm foundation. In three seasons since coming within a half of winning a state title in 2009, they're a combined 25-45. They went 7-14 last season.
"We're young," Plumadore said. "But I've got a great group of kids. There are 15 on the roster and all 15 are great kids, hard-working.
"We'll be a fast basketball team. Our M.O. will be push the ball and run. And there are a couple of big guys who I think can help us. I'm pretty excited about the team we've got."
Junior point guard Wilfred Pagan (6.9 points, 1.5 steals, 1.4 assists) brings the most experience to the table.
Sophomore center Reid Bozarth (6-foot-7) could standout along a tall, yet raw, frontcourt. Senior Mason Arroyo and junior Devonte Valentin will be asked to step up on the wing.
"I think we're the team that people are going to need to be concerned about, because they don't know what we've done all summer," Plumadore said.
"The kids have improved. They understand what it's going to take. I think we're going to surprise some people."
Hernando won't start playing until Dec. 4, as head coach Mark Latsko – the football team's defensive coordinator – typically backloads his schedule.
However, the Leopards won't be nearly as reliant on players who shift from the gridiron to the court as in recent years.
Thus they hope to avoid a repeat of last season's 0-7 beginning, before they finished up 11-13 overall.
"I think we're definitely going to be very competitive," Latsko said. "I think we won't be as slow-starting as in the past."
Point guard Mark Wilson earned All-County honors as a freshman in 2011-12, pacing the county at 3.3 steals per contest while also averaging 9.1 points and 2.7 assists.
Plus Hernando will have the full services of junior Ra'shaad Hart, who averaged 10.1 points, 6.9 boards, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals in seven games after missing most of the past season due to academic eligibility.
"We'd like to contend for a district championship and playoff berth," Latsko said. "If we're competitive on our district, I feel like we have a winnable non-district schedule. We're looking to have the best team we've had in the five years since I've been here."
Weeki Wachee begins its second varsity season, hoping to keep building up the fledgling program after experiencing expected growing pains in a 0-19 2011-12.
The Hornets' second-year head coach, Bob Croyle, could not be reached for comment before press time.
For the second year in a row, low turnout has forced Hernando Christian Academy to not field a high school squad.
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