BROOKSVILLE — For most of the Nature Coast starting lineup, Saturday’s region final against Leesburg is the most important game of the season.
For Matt Dennis, it’s the most important game of his life.
Dennis is the lone senior in the Sharks’ starting lineup, which means Tyler Bergantino, Donovan Ingram, Blake Lowman and Caleb Martin all return next season for what should be another great shot at reaching the Lakeland Center and state final four.
Dennis doesn’t have the luxury of next year. He has to get there tonight.
“It hits me every day,” he said. “Some nights I can’t sleep. Some days I just sit around and think this could be my last game. Every game could be the last game in my high school career.”
Dennis’ prep playing days may be on life support, but his game, especially in the postseason, is as healthy as ever.
In Tuesday’s region semifinal win over Wiregrass Ranch, Dennis matched a season high with 17 points and added 13 rebounds — his ninth double double of the season — to lead the Sharks into the region finals a second year in a row.
“He’s definitely had a great postseason,” Nature Coast coach Dave Pisarcik said. “He’s a guy that gives our team a pep talk if we need it. He’s that guy that says, ‘We’re not going home’ in the huddle. He doesn’t want it to be over.”
A do-everything type of player, Dennis is second on the team to Bergantino in points (nine a game) and rebounds (also nine a game), and has emerged as a consistent scoring option when other teams sell out to shut down the 6-foot-9 center.
“I realized that a lot of teams focus on Tyler a lot. I try to step up and take another part of the scoring role,” Dennis said. “I do what I have to do to help my team win. My main role for my team is to play defense and rebound. Keep the intensity up. Most of my teammates feed off of my intensity.”
At 6-4 and with a wingspan that stretches 6 feet, 9 inches, the lanky senior is the Sharks’ best defender. He has the length to harass quicker guards and is regularly matched up against the opposition’s primary scoring threat.
He also owns the school record for most steals in a season, currently at 110.
“Right now, we’re preaching defense and rebounding and valuing possessions on both ends of the floor,” Pisarcik said. “Matt has just gotten after it.”
Dennis said he would like to continue his playing career in college and will start looking at schools and his options once the season is over. But there are no guarantees of college ball.
His teammates watch how hard Dennis works in practice and during games. They feed off his desire. They want to win for Dennis as much as he wants to win for them.
“When I look back at this team 10 years down the road,” Pisarcik said, “I’ll think of it as Matt Dennis’ team.”
Region basketball final
Leesburg (25-4) at Nature Coast (27-3)
Saturday, 7 p.m. Admission is $6.
Winner advances to: Class 4A state semifinal at the Lakeland Center vs. Blake-Fort Myers winner.