Nature Coast Sharks look forward to new mean, clean season

BROOKSVILLE — Starting with the season opener in September, C.J. Baker thinks there is a chance to recapture much of what was lost in the darkness that autumn evening in Groveland.

Baker said that, in his mind, Nature Coast Technical High School can still complete a perfect football season, resume its abbreviated run to a state championship and erase the memory of a year that ended with chaos and controversy.

"Oh, we can get our 10-0," Baker said. "We'll just carry over those nine wins from last year."

Nature Coast would have played rival Central High, a team the Sharks have never beaten, in the regular season finale last year. But that game and the Sharks' first-round playoff game were forfeited after an on-field brawl Nov. 7 in Groveland, leaving the Sharks' official final record 9-2.

Now, the teams are scheduled to face each other in the first game of the upcoming season.

After an off-season that included the dismissal of the only head football coach in the Sharks' short history, some unflattering off-field headlines and the arrival of a new head coach, Nature Coast is looking forward to a new start.

"We've been through a lot this year," said Scott Baker, father of C.J. and member of the team's booster club. "People have no idea."

The trouble started when the lights went out.

• • •

When darkness descended, it set off a chain of events that shattered Nature Coast's perfect season and, for a while, left the football program in ruins.

With only about four minutes left in the game at Groveland South Lake that Nature Coast was leading 40-24, the power went out, leaving the field in darkness. Visibility was limited to "5-10 feet maximum," according to a referee's report.

"We didn't know what was going on," C.J. Baker recalled. "We thought it was a joke."

It soon became a battle.

Both benches cleared; fists and helmets were swung. The game was canceled and the Sharks were declared the winner.

A game official later said he saw Nature Coast head coach Jamie Joyner "throwing punches." Nature Coast boosters stood behind their coach, saying Joyner suffered a black eye when he was hit with a helmet. Joyner denied throwing punches, according to the report.

No matter. Joyner was suspended for six weeks by the Florida High School Athletic Association and suspended with pay by the Hernando School Board pending an investigation.

Even worse, Sharks were forced to forfeit the game at Central and then barred from the postseason.

"It was like an anvil was dropped on our head," said Larry Dodson, president of the team's booster club. "This was a big wakeup call for the kids."

Over the next few months, the Sharks settled into their offseason routine and set their sights on making the ugly end to their season nothing more than a bad memory. But things only got worse.

Joyner resigned from his coaching and teaching positions at Nature Coast on April 13 as the school district looked into allegations about an off-campus meeting he had with a female student.

At the time, Joyner was serving a suspension with pay — his second in less than six months — while district officials investigated. Joyner also is under a criminal inquiry because of an alleged relationship he had with the girl before she turned 18.

He left the school under a cloud of suspicion and rumors, and left the program in disarray and disappointment. Months later, few are willing to speak on the record about Joyner or his troubles.

"I'm disappointed. There's nothing else I can say about it," Dodson said. "I don't know anybody who wasn't disappointed."

Joyner did not return several messages left on his cell phone.

About a month later, Hernando school district officials launched an investigation into Nature Coast after learning that a Pasco County resident was playing on the football team. That student has since transferred to a school in Pasco.

Also, former Nature Coast player Daniel Lee Murray was arrested in connection with a fire set at a Spring Hill home on March 12. Murray faces felony charges of arson and residential burglary. He was already serving three years of probation stemming from a string of burglaries in July 2007.

"There's been a lot of change," C.J. Baker said. "There's been allegations on the left and slander on the right. All we can do is look to the future."

Helping them start anew will be new head coach Mark Lee, a former assistant at Springstead High. Since coming aboard three weeks ago, Lee has been inundated with responsibilities — meeting his players, guiding the final days of spring practice, hiring a coaching staff, setting up an off-season training program and coordinating activities with the booster club.

And he'll have a new start of his own: Lee, 34, is set to be married in July.

"I know that I'm in a good situation," Lee said. "Usually when a new coach comes in, the team is 0-9 and not 9-0. But with that, there's some things we've got to work on."

• • •

It will surely take some time before things are again going well with the Sharks.

Only days after Lee was installed as the head coach, about 50 players missed a day of spring practice. Many of them told him it was a simple miscommunication.

Lee said there would be no more excuses.

"There's going to have to be some sacrifices made," he said during his first meeting with the booster club. "If these kids want to change their image, this is not how they go about doing it."

That struck a chord with many of the parents and supporters, who have been seeking stability after months of uncertainty.

"He's come over to the dark side now," Dodson said, smiling. "That's all that matters."

Nature Coast figures to have another strong team, if not another district champion. The defense and offensive lines will have to be rebuilt, but the Sharks will rely heavily on St. Petersburg Times all-North Suncoast first-teamer Tevin Drake, who has scholarship offers from major-college programs like Miami, Florida State and Georgia.

Finally almost out of the darkness, the Sharks can't help but think a brighter future awaits them once they're allowed back under the Friday night lights.

"Last year was taken away from us," Baker said. "But it's brought everyone together. Now we can really get our 10-0 and our state championship."

Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6120.

Nature Coast Sharks look forward to new mean, clean season 06/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 11:44am]

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