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BROOKSVILLE — There are no superstars. No one on the team went undefeated. There is no true No. 1 seed.
It’s not the usual team that dominates, but Nature Coast went 16-1 and was rarely challenged this season on the way to a berth in the Class 2A state tournament at Casselberry.
The glue that brought these players together was shared grief over the death of a former teammate. Simon Toftegaard would have been a senior this season. He went undefeated as a sophomore two years ago for the Sharks.
His death two summers ago in an automobile accident brought about a mourning period that continues for some even today. With his name on the Nature Coast jerseys and the No. 17 to signify his 17-0 record, the team dedicated last season to Simon. When the team fell in the 2010 region final to Land O’Lakes, players took the loss hard.
“When we lost to Land O’Lakes, that was the hardest thing to go through,” Nature Coast junior Zenon Kouts said. “We thought we had it in us, but we came up just short.”
The five-man lineup of Tyler Schwefringhaus, David Cross, Andrew Lund, Kouts and Josh Weaver returned this season. None were seniors. Schwefringhaus, Cross and Lund were close with Toftegaard when he was on the team.
“(Toftegaard’s death) seems like it happened yesterday,” said Sharks coach Tom Brown, who is in his sixth year. “We miss him every day. A lot of these guys see him every time they go out on to that court.”
With Schwefringhaus (16-2), Cross (14-2) and Lund (15-3) rotating in at the top spot, Nature Coast has lost only one match in the regular season, to dominant Wiregrass Ranch in Class 3A.
The Bulls’ Courage Okungbowa and Spencer Ong remarked after a doubles match that they believed Kouts (17-1) was the best Sharks player of the bunch, showing just how deep the talent reaches. Weaver (13-4) rounds out the lineup as the fifth seed.
The program wouldn’t be denied its first berth at state since 2007 or a chance at memorializing Simon this season when it swept Mitchell in the first four matches during regionals last week. Remarkably, the first words on almost everyone’s lips afterward were about their fallen teammate.
“It means so much for us to take this for Simon,” Schwefringhaus said. “It’s all about him. After last year, it made us want it even more.”
Just getting to state, however, isn’t going to be good enough for this group.
Brown can see just how special these players are. He seems to have a special faith in his players that might carry them farther than anyone expects.
“I’ve seen some anxiety at times, and I’ve seen some determination,” Brown said. “All I know is that I love this team, and regardless of what happens going forward, they make me so proud.”