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Sharks pose legitimate threat

Nature Coast hopes to win first district title after successful season.

By KELLIE DIXON
Published April 22, 2007


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BROOKSVILLE - Senior Mike Dudek joked during Monday's practice that the Nature Coast baseball team barely knew what baseball was his freshman year.

That was the first season for the Sharks' squad. The wins were few and the beatings plenty. But Nature Coast has grown up from its 2-20 start. Led by its first four-year senior class, the Sharks have matured from a scrawny collection of 14- and 15-year-olds to a legitimate, unified 4A-8 district contender.

This has been the Sharks' best season - with records of 12-3 in district and 17-4 overall as of Monday - and Nature Coast is hoping to extend its season beyond the district tournament for the first time.

The Sharks are balanced, with nine players batting .300 or better and seven with at least 10 RBIs. The squad is led by Chris Jones .378 batting average and Blake Dudkewic (.377).

Bryan Daniels was 6-2 from the mound as of Monday with a 2.35 ERA. He has 52 strikeouts in 47.2 innings pitched. Travis Murray (5-1 with a 1.04 ERA) had struck out 58 in 40.1 innings pitched.

The transformation wasn't magical. It was inevitable. Through the sting of each growing pain (a 22-0 loss here slowly became a 2-1 loss there), Nature Coast improved.

The Sharks spent early offseason mornings in the weight room building their individual strength. Their team unity had no choice but to grow, as well.

Everything was going well. The Sharks were poised for greatness. And then they went 0-2.

Nature Coast coach Dan Garofano decided to call a team meeting. He knew his team was better than that, and he told them so.

When his flurry of words settled, the players concurred.

"He let us have it," said senior centerfielder Kyle Kuzniar.

It was the wake-up call the players needed. From there, the Sharks went on an 11-0 streak.

Long gone were the mental errors that plagued the Sharks for the first two seasons. What's more, the Nature Coast players simply pushed aside any reminders of their first two seasons.

"It's been a long haul since our 2-20 season," Daniels said. "After the first season, we forgot about it and moved on. You can't live in the past."

A sense of assurance has replaced the original feeling of anxiousness. The players are confident in themselves and each other.

"We have gelled together as a team," said Dudek, a first baseman. "We have faith one through nine that anyone can hit at anytime."

Garofano just shook his head Monday as he watched his players practicing and thought about the team's growth.

"I'm just happy for the guys who took the beatings early," Garofano said. "Hopefully they appreciated each one."

Appreciate is a verb the Sharks aren't necessarily comfortable with, but they certainly can't ignore how different it feels to take the field this year versus times past. Winning is fun. And expectations are at an all-time high.

"I'm going to be disappointed if we don't go farther than districts," Kuzniar said. "We have the talent."

Kellie Dixon can be reached at kdixon@sptimes.com or (352) 544-9480.

[Last modified April 21, 2007, 18:51:22]


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