WEEKI WACHEE — The resiliency that made Nature Coast such a dangerous team this season wasn't enough to capture the Class 3A, District 7 title Friday night.
Playing one man down after a significant call early in the contest, the Sharks were overwhelmed 5-2 by Citrus at Weeki Wachee.
As both teams jockeyed for position in the first 10 minutes, an attack from Citrus resulted in a corner kick. Nature Coast's Kyle Draper, defending the ball, was assessed a blue card on an intentional handball only 12 minutes in. The Sharks played with one fewer player on the field the remainder of the match.
Citrus immediately took advantage on a penalty kick from Josh Marsden, beating Nature Coast keeper Chandler Hatcher (seven saves) to his left.
"It's tough getting a blue card only 12 minutes into the game. It really put us behind the eight-ball," Sharks coach Ian Wald said. "We gave up a goal and lost a man, but we fought hard."
After a goal within the first minute of the second half to put Citrus up 3-0, Nature Coast was seemingly done for the night. But the same Sharks team that had a losing record coming into the district tournament would not roll over.
"Even when we're dealt a tough hand, we know we can persevere," Wald said. "It just says that we're finally getting things going."
Nature Coast scored consecutive goals from Joey Wright and Gil Delgado later in the half, and had another wiped off the board due to an offsides call, cutting the Citrus lead to 3-2 with only six minutes left. The ferocious comeback came up short when Marsden scored his second goal, connecting on a counterattack to put the Hurricanes up 4-2.
Jonathan Kreidenweis headed in a corner kick for the Hurricanes' final goal.
Nature Coast faces Sunlake on the road Thursday in the region quarterfinals.
Sunlake 3, Land O'Lakes 1: As they left the stadium, Land O'Lakes fans were already plotting the drive to Inverness.
Land O'Lakes and Sunlake advance to the 3A region quarterfinals Thursday, and Friday's game determined their roles.
The Seahawks defeated the Gators to earn the district championship a third consecutive year. Sunlake will host District 7 runnerup Nature Coast, while the Gators travel to Citrus.
The game was scoreless at the end of the first half, but the Seahawks had already outshot the Gators 11-3.
"I just told them to keep playing how they were playing," Sunlake coach Sam Koleduk said. "We were dominating, just missing some easy shots."
The first score of the night came 53 minutes in. Sunlake's Cobi Shermo raced to the box and flicked the ball over the line.
"Once we score, the floodgates always open," Koleduk said. "Once we scored, I knew we had the game."
Koleduk's prediction was true. Within the next three minutes, Sunlake scored twice more.
Shermo passed to Connor Spencer just seconds after his own goal, and Spencer's solid kick sank the ball into the back of the net. Remi Pimm added another goal just minutes later, his 55th this season.
The Gators were afforded a penalty kick with less than 10 minutes remaining, and Glenn Johnson's kick was successful for the final margin.
Sunlake ended the game with six saves, while Land O'Lakes had 16.
To some fans, Sunlake's victory may have felt like revenge a couple of years in the making. Two years ago, the Seahawks fell in the region semis to Land O'Lakes, the eventual state runner-up.
After Sunlake's 2013 district championship, the Seahawks advanced to the state semifinals, falling to eventual state champion Ponte Vedra.
The Seahawks have already faced their next opponent. They defeated Nature Coast 4-1 last week. Koleduk said they know the team well enough to feel confident going into regionals.
Mary Kenney, Times staff writer