On the strength of a six-game win streak, Central finds itself in the driver's seat for the conference championship and one game off the pace in Class 4A, District 9.
The Bears are undefeated (8-0) in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, two games ahead of their closest pursuers with four to play.
With six district games left, Central (6-3) is tied with Lecanto (6-3) for third, one game behind Leesburg (7-3) and Clermont East Ridge (7-3).
The next seven days will go a long way toward determining both races. The Bears play Leesburg today, Lecanto on Tuesday and East Ridge on Jan. 30.
Central (12-5 overall) enters the stretch with momentum gained from victories against Springstead, South Lake and Nature Coast Tech during the past week.
Tough defense and a willingness of each player to accept his role have keyed the run, coach John Sedlack said.
"Realistically, I don't know if we could be undefeated the rest of the way," Sedlack said. "But right now, everybody's clicking."
Leading scorer Alex Ruoff averaged 32.7 points in the three victories. Point guard Andy Sedlack ran the offense and passed to Ruoff for the momentum-changing basket in a 54-40 victory against Nature Coast. Guard Ermine Lewis played solid defense and scored 12 against the Sharks.
Center Anthony Wright grabbed eight rebounds against South Lake. Forward Hector Rivera took more charges than any Bears player. Aaron Wimer, Tim Plumadore and Chance Blevins contributed off the bench.
GRUDGE MATCH REVISITED: Central knew it was entering a hostile environment when it visited Nature Coast on Wednesday. After all, six players left the Bears for the Sharks during the offseason, and Central beat Nature Coast 66-54 in an emotionally charged game Dec. 4.
So it was little surprise to Sedlack when Nature Coast stormed to a 9-2 lead and held a 19-18 halftime advantage.
"We knew it'd be tough," Sedlack said. "And they came out tough."
Sensing his team was pressing, Sedlack simplied the offense in the second half. His players responded by outscoring the Sharks 36-21 the rest of the way.
OFF AND RUNNING: Hernando Christian Academy (4-3) snapped a three-game losing streak with consecutive victories against Cedar Key, Seffner Christian Academy and Academy at the Lakes. Four players scored in double figures Tuesday as HCA defeated Academy at the Lakes 67-44.
Mandella Myers led with 20 points, including three 3-pointers. Ryan Gray had 15 points and 14 rebounds. Andrew Holtzhouse added 13 points and Jon Whitten 12.
_ FRANK PASTOR