LAND O’LAKES — Tuesday, Nature Coast will hit the road for another region game. But the Sharks won’t have far to travel.
Land O’Lakes (20-3) hosts fellow district runnerup Nature Coast (20-4) in a Class 5A region semifinal that’s impossible to predict based on regular-season play.
The Gators twice lost to Gulf, which Nature Coast defeated. But the Sharks lost to Pasco twice, and the Gators defeated the Pirates in the first round.
“We’ve got to come ready to handle the pressure,” Land O’Lakes coach Phyllis Crain said. “(Nature Coast is) a very athletic team.”
Coach Emily Gore said her Sharks are focusing on improving their defense and rebounding to bring the fight to the Gators.
“We just really try to focus on the things we’ve done well,” Gore said. “We feel like if we focus on those, the offense will come to us.”
Nature Coast has averaged 60 points per game — led by Rita Jarque (18.1 ppg, 16.3 rpg). Land O’Lakes — with Jhade Hayes (14.4 ppg) in front — has averaged 46.7. Gore said the Gators have kept scoring low the past few games, and if the Sharks can set tonight’s tempo, it could make the difference.
This is Land O’Lakes’ 13th playoff appearance. The farthest the Gators have advanced is a region final in 2011.
Nature Coast isn’t new to the postseason either. The Sharks have had seven appearances — most recently in 2012 — and never advanced past this round.
Gore said she didn’t build up this year as the one in which the Sharks could make history. Going into the season, she had just two seniors on the roster, and some of the girls hadn’t played many varsity minutes.
By winter break, the Sharks were 11-2, and Gore knew it was time to start pushing the group.
“At that point, we could tell we were talented,” she said. “We had the potential to advance pretty far. But we knew we had to be able to win the big games.”
She wanted her team to be able to defeat Pasco and Citrus, the only teams that defeated them before the break. In January, the Sharks topped both.
The Gators haven’t changed any part of their practice regimen in response to the playoffs. Crain said they have an established routine that has served them well.
The Sharks, on the other hand, have shifted from improving internally to strategizing based on the next opponent. Oh, and team dinners have become the norm in the postseason.
“All the girls have good relationships on our team,” Gore said. “Sometimes they’re just like sisters. We have our rough moments, but we have our good moments.”
Who: Keswick Christian (21-8) at AATL (17-5), 7 Tuesday
Skinny: For the third consecutive year, Academy at the Lakes (17-5) has advanced to the second round of the playoffs. The Wildcats progressed to the state championship last year and the state semis the previous year. If their performance in the quarterfinals is used as a gauge —72-18 win over Hernando Christian — they could easily be on track to do so again. Keswick Christian advanced from the first round in a dramatic win as well, toppling Cambridge Christian 50-22.