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BROOKSVILLE — The Nature Coast boys basketball team graduated seven seniors after a season that saw the Sharks advance to the region finals for the first time in school history.
Just two starters return for Nature Coast this season.
But they still have King Kong. And that’s a good place to start.
Expectations are at an all-time high at Nature Coast, largely because of the presence of reigning St. Petersburg Times North Suncoast player of the year Tyler Bergantino, the one with the Charles Barkley game and the Nintendo nickname.
Standing just a few puffs of hair shy of 6-foot-10, Bergantino emerged as a colossal-sized terror on the North Suncoast last season, averaging 14 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks to lead the Sharks, only a three seed in the district tournament, within a game of the Lakeland Center and the state semifinals.
“He’s one of the true post men,” Nature Coast coach David Pisarcik said. “… He’s got the nickname King Kong because sometimes he plays like a beast. Every day in practice he’s impressing me more and more. The things he can do, sometimes, you sit back and go, ‘Wow.’ ”
Now a year sharper, a year stronger and a year wiser, Bergantino’s upside appears limitless. He has extended his range over the summer and is more consistently knocking down the midrange jumper, and he’s getting to the point where teams have to guard him beyond the 3-point line, although his coach isn’t too happy about having his premier post presence playing on the perimeter.
“Coach has me on the yellow light,” Bergantino joked. “It’s not a green light yet.”
Bergantino is such a force that Nature Coast is widely regarded as the team to beat in Pasco and Hernando counties, despite graduating valuable starters Adam Smith, Jamel Byrd and Guan Whitsett.
The Sharks don’t have the depth they had a season ago, and they’ll have to rely on a number of inexperienced underclassmen. But point guard Blake Lowman returns. He knows how to run the Nature Coast offense — dump it inside to the big man and, if he’s double- or triple-teamed, knock down the open shot.
Senior forward Matt Dennis has emerged as a third scoring option and a player who can create offense from his defense.
And, of course, there’s Bergantino.
“He’s a better leader this year. He realizes this is his team,” Pisarcik said. “We’re going to go as far as he takes us. He’s doing a great job of filling that role.”
In order to challenge his team from start to finish this season, Pisarcik wanted to cobble together the strongest schedule possible. So he looked at the top 10 schools from last season’s final state rankings and called each one, looking for a game.
He had a couple of takers.
“Strength of schedule is probably the best it’s ever been at Nature Coast,” Pisarcik said.
The Sharks open the season today at perennially tough East Ridge. They play Plant and Class 5A state runnerup Sickles this weekend in a Thanksgiving Shootout at Sickles.
In all, the Sharks play only nine of their 27 games at home.
“We’re trying to get battle-tested so when the district playoffs come around, we’re ready to go,” Pisarcik said.
North Suncoast Super Seven
1. Nature Coast: Sharks are coming off their most successful season in school history.
2. Wiregrass Ranch: No more Eric Williams dominating the post, but coach Jeremy Calzone says this is the deepest team he has ever coached.
3. Mitchell: Last year’s runnerup in Class 4A, District 7 enters this season as the favorite.
4. Ridgewood: Legendary coach Gary Anders is gone, as are most of the players from last year’s 26-3 team.
5. Land O’Lakes: The inexperienced Gators slumped to a sub.-500 record last season, but those growing pains should result in more wins this year.
6. Wesley Chapel: Wildcats are young — they start three sophomores — but they have depth and will get better as the season progresses.
7. Hernando: Leopards don’t play first game until Dec. 3 because 10 of their 15 players also play football.
Players to watch
G Jake Driscoll, Jr., Mitchell: Driscoll averaged 12 points, five assists and five rebounds as a sophomore.
G Will Hall, Sr., Springstead: Athletic, 6-foot slasher will be the Eagles’ main threat offensively.
G Blake Lowman, Jr., Nature Coast: The Sharks’ floor general will look to increase his scoring.
G Christian Parra, So., Wesley Chapel: Part of a phenomenal sophomore class, Parra averaged double figures last season.
G Austyn Sconiers, Sr., River Ridge: Three-point threat can drive to the basket and is the Royal Knights’ best free-throw shooter.
G Darrell Warren, Sr., Land O’Lakes: Sat out last season after transferring from Sunlake; may be the area’s quickest player.
G Derek Wilson, Sr., Hernando: The Leopards’ best pure basketball player was the team’s second-leading scorer a year ago.
F Tyler Bergantino, Jr., Nature Coast: Reigning Times North Suncoast Player of the Year is stronger and has improved outside shot.
F Tanner Carey, Sr., Wiregrass Ranch: The Bulls’ leader can post up or put it on the floor to score.
F Hakeeme Ishmar, Sr., Pasco: Missed all but two games last season after surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
F Scott Kujak, Sr., Ridgewood: Physical player who can finish around the basket and clean up on the boards.
F Sevy Galati, Jr., Anclote: One of the area’s best rebounders and shot blockers has improved his offensive game as well.
Class 5A, District 7: Central, Forest, Springstead, West Port
Outlook: Forest, the favorite to repeat, won the district and advanced to the postseason for the first time in 13 seasons. Springstead is a solid choice to go to the playoffs and finish as runnerup again.
Class 4A, District 7: Anclote, Fivay, Gulf, Hudson, Mitchell, Pasco, Ridgewood, Wesley Chapel
Outlook: The district with the most parity. Mitchell, Ridgewood and Wesley Chapel appear to be the top three. Keep an eye on Anclote, which finished just two games below .500 in its inaugural season.
Class 4A, District 8: Citrus, Hernando, Land O’Lakes, Lecanto, Nature Coast, River Ridge, Sunlake, Wiregrass Ranch, Zephyrhills
Outlook: The top half of this district is loaded. Land O’Lakes, Lecanto, Nature Coast and Wiregrass Ranch could make legitimate claims to being the district’s best team. Hernando, River Ridge and Zephyrhills are quality programs trying to crack the upper echelon.
Class 2A, District 10: Bishop McLaughlin, Brooks-DeBartolo, Calvary Christian, Indian Rocks Christian, Tampa Prep
Outlook: Led by senior James Nelson and junior Jordan Betancourt, the Hurricanes will be improved from last year’s team that won one game, but not enough to unseat Tampa Prep or Calvary Christian.
Class A, District 8: Bayshore Christian, Bradenton Christian, Citrus Park Christian, Hernando Christian, Seffner Christian
Outlook: Hernando Christian can shoot but is extremely young with two freshmen and an eighth-grader in the starting lineup. That inexperience will make it hard for the Lions to dethrone Bradenton Christian or Seffner Christian at the top of the district.
Class A, District 9: Academy at the Lakes, Berean Academy, Cambridge, Canterbury, Carrollwood Day, Keswick Christian, Lakeside Christian, Tampa Bay Christian
Outlook: Cambridge and Canterbury were playoff teams a year ago and are the top candidates to get back there, as is Keswick. AATL, led by junior sharpshooter Jarrett Harvey, has five new starters.
Mark your calendar
Nov. 27: Nature Coast at Sickles; Dec. 1: Mitchell at Wiregrass Ranch; Dec. 3: Ridgewood at Mitchell; Dec. 7: Mitchell at Wesley Chapel; Dec. 14: Ridgewood at Wesley Chapel; Dec. 14: Ocala Forest at Springstead; Dec. 14: Nature Coast at Land O’Lakes; Jan. 11: Wiregrass Ranch at Nature Coast; Jan. 14: Land O’Lakes at Wiregrass Ranch; Jan. 21: Hernando at Nature Coast