There weren't any girls bouncing basketballs on the Nature Coast campus Monday. Jason Montgomery gave the squad the day off - no practice. Instead, the girls had time to think about Thursday's region opponent, and Montgomery had some extra time to strategize.
The Sharks will travel to Orlando Bishop Moore for their Class 4A region semifinal, the same location where the Springstead soccer and Nature Coast volleyball teams met their makers. The private school boasts several powerhouse athletic programs, and girls basketball is one of them. The Hornets are 22-3, ranked No. 6 in Class 4A. The starting lineup features girls 6 feet 3, 6-1, 5-11, 5-11 and 5-8, according to Montgomery.
Now take that recipe and add this one last, bitter ingredient: Nature Coast will play the game without three starters, who are serving season-ending suspensions.
The school would not release the names or offer any information as to why they were suspended. But Jessica Eberts, Cherikhan Waddy and Crystal Anthony did not attend Saturday's 73-18 loss to Gulf, and Montgomery said April Tresize, Kaitlin Wadsworth and Erin Cagan again will join Shareka Maner and Lauren Wajerski in the starting lineup for regionals.
The impact of Eberts, Waddy and Anthony's absences can be summed up like this: the Sharks lost their top two scorers (Waddy and Eberts), two top ballhandlers (Waddy and Anthony) and best shooter (Eberts). Plus, the bench goes from thin to skeletal.
It's an unfortunate end to a season that continued two impressive steaks for Nature Coast - an undefeated streak in county play and fourth straight season advancing to regionals. With the roster problems, it seems likely another streak will continue - getting bounced in the first round of regionals.
The team found out about the suspensions on the same day of the Gulf game, which meant no time to plan or cook up some way to make up for such major losses. The result was a game in which the Sharks scored only four field goals. Cagan, still recovering from an injured knee, took over ball-handling duties at point guard without much warning. Wadsworth, used to the sixth-man role, was inserted in the starting lineup.
"It took the wind out of our sails a little bit," Montgomery said. "And we didn't have time to scheme. Players were playing out of position, it was tough."
Entering the Bishop Moore game, Montgomery talked about "contingency plans," "smoke and mirrors" and strategizing. "We're going to have to X and O it hard," he said.
Bishop Moore is every bit the daunting opponent Gulf was, though Gulf is ranked two spots higher in the state poll. Nature Coast, at full strength, would be a considerable underdog against the Hornets. At current strength, the Sharks are an overwhelming underdog and the girls know it.
"I think they're realists," Montgomery said.
Vincent Thomas can be reached at email@example.com or 352-848-1430.