BROOKSVILLE — Football coach Jamie Joyner walked alongside his principal, then broke up Nature Coast's practice with a statement no one could anticipate.
Joyner huddled the Sharks, who each took a knee, then told them the news in a soft, broken voice.
"The (Florida High School Athletic Association) has canceled our game against Central on Friday," Joyner said. "The good news is we still have the postseason."
Just north, Central principal Dennis McGeehan was giving the Bears a similar speech with one tough twist: They have no more games; their season is over. In effect, the Bears lose their final home game and senior night as well.
"I didn't think my high school career would end halfway through a practice," Central senior Dallas Waugh said after his father called the St. Petersburg Times to object to the decision. "The seniors were crushed. It was completely unfair."
This was continued fallout from a bench-clearing brawl last week between Nature Coast and Groveland South Lake. The game was called with three minutes, 45 seconds remaining after the lights went out and a fight ensued. South Lake's game Friday against Tavares also was canceled.
"You just feel for your players," Joyner said. "Your heart bleeds for them because you know firsthand how much they put into this."
Central coach Cliff Lohrey stood outside the Bears' gymnasium still stunned about an hour after his season ended. For the first time in his career, Lohrey could not address the team and asked the players to return today for a meeting.
"We've been down the second half of the season and if we were preparing for anyone (other than Nature Coast) this would have been a long week of practice," said Lohrey, whose Bears are 3-6 and have lost their past four games. "This was a new season in itself. We respect the FHSAA's decision, but it's disheartening to our team."
The decision to cancel this week's games was made Wednesday afternoon during a conference call between FHSAA associate executive director for athletic administration Denarvise Thornton, and superintendents and county athletic directors from Hernando and Lake counties, Nature Coast principal Tizzy Schoelles said.
FHSAA spokeswoman Cristina Alvarez said the organization had no comment and referred questions to letters sent to both schools. In those documents, Joyner and an unidentified Nature Coast football player were suspended for "throwing punches." Joyner has been suspended from coaching for six weeks, and the player is suspended indefinitely.
Schoelles and Joyner will travel to Orlando today to appeal. She added there would be no appeal to play Friday's games.
After Joyner's comments Wednesday, one player raised his hand and asked if the cancellation meant Nature Coast would not have a 10-0 season. When Joyner answered yes, the Sharks let out a collective groan and one or two teared up.
"We never beat them before," Nature Coast running back Antwan Story said. "All you can do is look to the next game. We worked hard to go 10-0. Now that won't happen."