BROOKSVILLE — Nature Coast's high school football season ended Wednesday afternoon with an announcement in a classroom, and it was clear the Florida High School Athletic Association was hoping to teach its member schools a lesson.
Nature Coast was forced to forfeit Friday's Class 3A first-round playoff game against Williston, was fined $10,400 and lost its 2009 spring football game for its part in a bench-clearing brawl Nov. 7 at Groveland South Lake. Nature Coast is believed to be the first playoff-bound football team disqualified from the postseason. The FHSAA, which recently has begun to take a harsher position with schools with a history of fighting, levied similar penalties against South Lake ($8,500 fine, no bowl game this season and no spring game).
The Nature Coast football program, which also scuffled with Central High on Nov. 9, 2007, and was on probation for recruiting in 2006, is placed on restrictive probation for the remainder of the 2008 season and administrative probation effective immediately through June 30, 2010. The athletic program also was reprimanded.
Nature Coast's fine stemmed from violating several rules, and it was assessed 48 counts of unsportsmanlike conduct at $100 each. (One count for each player on the roster, minus the 11 who were allowed to be on the field at the time.)
"Basically both teams' seasons ended. That was the punishment," FHSAA associate executive director Sonny Hester said. "Not that they couldn't play in the playoffs. We didn't look at whatever they had left. Their seasons were ended, whether it was this week or if this had happened in the second week.''
Nature Coast principal Tizzy Schoelles said the school will appeal directly to FHSAA executive director John Stewart on Friday, though she admitted she didn't know that there was much hope the game with Williston could still be played.
"I'd feel grossly inadequate if I didn't make that phone call," Schoelles said. "But unless something happens, I have no new evidence in front of me to (plead our case)."
The football booster club consulted an attorney and considered filing an injunction against the FHSAA to allow Nature Coast to play Friday night. Booster club president Larry Dodson, father of Sharks senior lineman Lane Dodson, said limited time will prevent that from happening. Instead, the Sharks will sit at home and Williston advances to the region semifinals.
"If we were to ask for an appeal or an injunction it would have to be done in the county of (Alachua)," Dodson said. "We do not have enough time to do so, which may have been why the report was delayed, to prevent us from doing so."
Ruling is 'overboard'
The brawl at South Lake, which led to an almost two-week investigation by the FHSAA, came after a power failure shut down the field lights with three minutes, 45 seconds remaining in the game.
The St. Petersburg Times obtained a copy of the game film, which shows the final moments. A pair of Nature Coast defenders break into the backfield during the final play and as they converge on the quarterback, the screen goes black. Screams from the crowd are the only indication the camera is still rolling. The next image shows a picture of the scoreboard with no hint of fighting.
Nature Coast argues it had formulated — and executed — a plan of action after last year's brawl with Central. The Sharks were instructed to march toward the fence line surrounding the stadium if a similar circumstance occurred.
"I feel like they went overboard with the situation," Sharks junior Tevin Drake said of the FHSAA. "(South Lake) came at us, we didn't come at them. They're putting it all on us like we're the ones that started the whole fight and saying we did all this and that because of our history with fighting. They went overboard."
The FHSAA's initial ruling came Nov. 10 when it announced indefinite suspensions of four players, including Nature Coast senior Brad Lucier. Sharks coach Jamie Joyner was cited for gross unsportsmanlike conduct, which carries a six-week suspension. Lucier and Joyner were cited for "throwing punches" after a game official identified them in a report filed with the FHSAA. No decision was made Wednesday on their appeals.
Joyner said previously he had been struck in the head with a helmet during the melee and suffered a black eye. He denied throwing a punch.
In Nature Coast's internal findings to the FHSAA, Schoelles wrote, "Coach Joyner stepped onto the field and pushed the South Lake players aside to assist player No. 3 (Nature Coast senior Tadd Govadich) to his feet."
The FHSAA also canceled regular-season finales between Nature Coast-Central and South Lake-Tavares, effectively ending four seasons at once. Because of Central and Williston forfeits, Nature Coast finishes the season at 9-2.
The Lake County Sheriff's Office is looking into criminal complaints against four Nature Coast players and one South Lake player. The allegation against Joyner is still under investigation, Cpl. James Vachon said via e-mail.
The Hernando County School Board suspended Joyner, also a teacher at the school, with pay. The board, which will have access to the FHSAA's full report, is expected to begin its investigation in coming days.
Joyner told his players Wednesday they were champions at 9-0 and that no one had defeated them on the football field. As players fought tears and huddled around their coach, he told them to be proud.
There are 22 seniors on Nature Coast's roster, including D.J. Williams, who struggled to cope with what he had just learned.
"We didn't deserve to have everything taken away like that," Williams said. "Some of them will never play football again. It's really a big hit because you just want to get your last game in, win or lose."
Times staff writer John C. Cotey contributed to this report.