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The balance of power

Nature Coast Tech will alter the landscape of Hernando County sports when it opens next August. The future talent pool will be stressed and players at three existing public schools could be enticed to a gleaming new school. The playing field is about to change

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002

BROOKSVILLE -- She doesn't play, coach, or even turn on the gym lights, but Tizzy Schoelles is a prime mover in county athletics.

Each time the principal of Nature Coast Technical High walks into an area school's media center, recruiting prospective students for the under-construction facility on California Street, she affects the future balance of what has been a three-strut athletic model in the county since Central opened in 1988.

When $41-million Nature Coast opens in August, it likely will have only a handful of varsity programs, but its impact will be assured.

Schoelles said she has been granted permission from the School Board to recruit all grade levels for the new school. It will siphon about 600 students from overcrowded Central and Springstead. The school would not be given a designated zone if it can garner enough freshman volunteers each year to maintain its enrollment.

It's possible that a talented collection of athletes could defect to Nature Coast and make it immediately viable in a certain sport. But the more plausible effect would be a subtle accumulation of athletes who would have played at other schools had Tech not been built.

"I think you're looking at more of a long-term impact, further down the road," Hernando athletic director Matt Smith said. "It's going to have an effect, though."

Schoelles said her priority is to build Nature Coast into "a school of tomorrow" first, an ambitious venture in which traditional high school disciplines would blend with studies of agriculture and natural resources, engineering technology and digital publishing. Athletics come next, but she's determined to make her school competitive in that arena. "It all depends on how good the people are you hire," Schoelles said. "If you hire competent and qualified people, good coaches and all else will fall in line."

Schoelles is counting on her first hire to begin that process. She plans to announce on Monday the hiring of Central cheerleading coach Joy Greene as Nature Coast's athletic director. Greene would be the first female prep AD in county history. She was chosen over former Central athletic director Vic Cervizzi and Fox Chapel Middle School AD Chris Wilson.

No coaches will be hired, Schoelles said, until teaching positions are filled. The school does have a nickname, Sharks, and its colors are teal and black.

Greene could not be reached Friday for comment. Creating a successful sports program from scratch is a nebulous task. If there is a model to follow, it's Wesley Chapel, which opened in 1999. In three years, the Wildcats have produced an undefeated football season, reached the state final four in boys basketball, and captured district volleyball and track titles.

Wesley Chapel had some advantages Nature Coast may not enjoy, however. Wesley Chapel, in the path of major suburban explosion north of Tampa, originally attracted students from Pasco, Land O'Lakes and Zephyrhills high schools, and because it wasn't at capacity, a school-choice option let any Pasco County student transfer in the first year.

"We are definitely growing," Wesley Chapel athletic director Annie McGhee said. "We get a lot of kids because people want to live in Hernando and Pasco because it's cheaper. Now we're over the number of students we're supposed to have."

As many as four high schools could be built in Pasco County in the next 5-7 years, and ground was broken in February on Bishop McLaughlin, a Catholic school. No new high schools are planned for Hernando County, but only Hernando High is projected to be under capacity the next few years. This spring, Springstead (1,815 students) was more than 500 pupils above what the state considers its capacity. Central (1,747) was about 400 beyond capacity. Enrollment in county schools grew by 3.5 percent this year, and the district topped 18,000 students for the first time.

Schoelles hoped to open Nature Coast Technical with 600 underclassmen, but the School Board mandated it must serve at least 1,200 to ease overcrowding. For that reason, Hernando High football coach Bill Browning thinks Nature Coast's opening will benefit his program.

"Springstead has 650 more kids than Hernando, Central about 610," Browning said. "Hopefully, this will even things out, student population-wise. Whenever you get 500-600 more students in a school, you're going to find five or six more football players."

Browning worries, though, that the new school could undermine the authority of coaches such as himself, Central's John Wilkinson and Springstead's Bill Vonada.

"The thing that concerns me more about school choice, and I know there is a lot of good to it, is you're getting into a situation where you might have come down on someone discipline-wise, and he just says, "Well, I'll go to (Nature Coast)'," Browning said. "That puts us coaches behind the eight ball discipline-wise."

Smith, a 1988 Springstead graduate, remembers some of his younger friends and athletes being enticed to transfer to Central for something new.

"Whenever a new school opens and athletes get distributed to other schools, it takes a while to rebuild," he said.

Central finished 3-7 in its first varsity football season, 1989. Hernando went 7-3 and Springstead 8-3 the same year. By 1990, Central was 7-4, a win better than its two rivals. The Bears were 12-19 the next three seasons. Hernando, then the area's pre-eminent power, and Springstead each went 20-11 in the same span.

County athletic directors have little knowledge of the recruitment process, Springstead's Bob Levija said.

"The ADs on the inner circle don't have a clue," Levija said. "They're not telling us anything.

"All I've heard is (Schoelles) is coming," he said. "What impact will they have? Clueless, but the kids aren't running in saying, "Can I go with her now?' "

Nature Coast's master plan includes full athletic facilities, but it will open with only a gym and unlighted baseball and softball fields. All other sports -- except basketball, wrestling and volleyball -- would have to be played off-campus. Schoelles said she hopes the school immediately will have varsity soccer, wrestling, baseball and softball. All other programs will begin with junior varsity teams for at least a year.

The Nature Coast blueprint includes a football facility, but there is no date set for its completion.

"The stadium is planned," Schoelles said. "It was included when the whole campus was engineered. When do I want it to open? Next August. When will it open? I don't know. It's still in the planning stages."

Just like Nature Coast's future spot on the county sports pecking order.

-- Information from Times archives contributed to this report.

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