BROOKSVILLE — They never lost a game they played this year. But the record books will show a 9-2 season and a big asterisk for Nature Coast after a final Hail Mary came up short Friday in a Hernando County courtroom.
County Judge Kurt E. Hitzemann denied the school's request to block its suspension by the Florida High School Athletic Association in connection with a bench-clearing brawl Nov. 7.
The team had been prepared to suit up for its first home playoff match against Williston, after forfeiting its final regular-season game against Central. But the judge said he could find no legal basis to overturn the suspension.
"Quite frankly, it pains me to do it," Hitzemann said. "I'd rather see the game played. But it's not the court's place to get involved in the affairs of the association."
Three eyewitnesses took the stand in support of Nature Coast, and none said her or she saw a member of the team fighting after an unexpected power outage Nov. 7 in the final minutes of the Sharks' 40-24 win at South Lake.
Joy Greene, an assistant principal at Nature Coast, said she walked toward the sideline after the field was plunged into darkness. Then an ambulance turned on its lights. A majority of her team's players were moving back toward the fence, as they had been coached, while Groveland players charged them, she said.
"I didn't see any of our players turn around and return to the field," Greene said. "Our players were on the fence line."
Parent Christine Jarque said she saw coach Jamie Joyner running along the sideline with his arms outstretched "in a defensive posture." She and her husband, Greg, echoed Greene's account, saying a majority of their team walked away from the fight.
But FHSAA attorney Leonard Ireland said he could produce eyewitness testimony by a referee that contradicted those accounts. It was the referee's report that formed the basis for the FHSAA's suspension of both teams for the remainder of the season. Nature Coast was fined $10,400 for 48 counts of unsportsmanlike conduct at $100 each; Groveland received an $8,500 fine.
Joyner was suspended six weeks for gross unsportsmanlike conduct and was cited for "throwing punches." He has been suspended with pay by the Hernando County School Board pending an investigation. The Lake County Sheriff's Office is also conducting a criminal probe into the matter.
The FHSAA attorney asked Nature Coast principal Tizzy Schoelles if she was aware of the association's 12 citations against the school for unsportsmanlike conduct since 2004. She recalled some, but said she wasn't aware of others, including the January ejection of a basketball coach.
"Apparently nothing gets through to Nature Coast High School when it comes to their athletic programs," Ireland said. "I don't know what it's going to take before something extremely serious happens."
In his ruling, Hitzemann said Nature Coast had not proved that the FHSAA violated its own bylaws in making the suspensions. He said the two teams had been treated similarly. Previous courts have ruled against interfering with voluntary associations unless they violate their own rules, act in "malicious bad faith" or clearly violate a contract.
Outside the courtroom, Schoelles said her school had run out of options for Friday's game, but would appeal the fines.
"I'm out of my league," she added. "I don't know that I can dispute the decision."
Reached by telephone, Joyner said he was disappointed but not surprised by the ruling. He said he hoped to gather the team to help them make sense of the season's unlikely end.
"It's been a roller coaster ride for the kids," Joyner said. "It's been tough for everyone involved."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.