BROOKSVILLE — This was billed as Hernando County's biggest game — ever.
No two county schools had ever battled with more at stake.
Now all that has changed.
Nature Coast's 22-20 victory over Hernando on Friday night followed by Crystal River's 38-8 win at Tavares sets up a three-way tiebreaker.
The winner of Monday's shootout at Nature Coast will secure the Class 3A, District 6 second seed and join district champion Dunnellon as a playoff representative.
"We're thrilled we're in a playoff," Hernando coach John Palmer said. "We have a chance. We're not eliminated. We're still kicking."
Palmer told his players in the locker room afterward they had one more shot. He said that was some solace in the immediate aftermath of Friday's loss.
Forget playoff pressure. The eyes of Hernando County were upon them.
Pride loomed large over Tom Fisher Stadium as county bully Nature Coast (7-2, 5-2 in 3A-6) was being challenged by rising Hernando (5-3, 4-2) in a back-alley brawl.
Nature Coast wanted to let every doubter in the bunch know the swagger was back. So after every score, the Sharks went for two.
"If we score, go for two," Nature Coast coach Mark Lee said. "It's all about attitude. This was a statement game."
Hernando had a chance at a tie late in the fourth quarter after quarterback Kall Daniel hit Alvin Delaine for a pass that went 37 yards for a touchdown.
After the failed two-point conversion attempt, the Leopards could not recover and onside kick.
"Everyone was doubting us and Hernando stepped their game up," Nature Coast senior Tevin Drake said. "We showed everyone we're the team to beat.
"It's our county. We had to come in and shut them up and let them know Nature Coast runs this thing."
Drake opened scoring with a 24-yard touchdown run capped with his two-point run for an 8-0 lead. He finished with 19 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown.
Delaine answered on the Leopards' next possession with a 25-yard touchdown run. Daniel's conversion pass to Marlin Smith tied it at 8.
Nature Coast responded when quarterback C.J. Baker hit Anthony Carlucci on a 20-yard touchdown pass followed by Drake's conversion run to make it 16-8 before halftime.
Delaine came up big again with a 10-yard touchdown run to make it 16-14. A Carlucci 6-yard touchdown run made it 22-14 before Hernando's final drive.
Delaine accounted for 188 yards of offense and three touchdowns.
"I'm mad right now because we're trying to go to the playoffs this year," Delaine said. "This was a big game. I'm really mad right now.
"We fought hard to the end."
Izzy Gould can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 421-3886.