Chris Bernhardt Jr. / Citrus Chronicle
BROOKSVILLE — A week ago, Crystal River found itself in an all too familiar position of finishing second in the district to Nature Coast, just as it had last year.
On Thursday, the Pirates were conversely in an unaccustomed yet far more pleasant spot: celebrating a state berth. That happened thanks to a 4-2 victory over the host Sharks in the Class 2A, Region 4 final.
“We’ve never even made it past the first round of regionals, and to go to states is such an honor, and we’ve all worked hard,” senior Ryan Grant said. “I’m really happy right now.
“Even though we got runner-up and we didn’t get a district title, we knew we had to come back in regionals. For us to keep our composure and try our best, I knew that we could pull out a win, and we did.”
Despite how the district tournament panned out, Crystal River (11-2) had success this season against Nature Coast (11-6), winning the lone regular-season meeting and taking three out of four head-to-head matchups in the district finals.
The Pirates grabbed control early by capturing the first three singles matches that were completed. That included Andrew Allen winning at No. 2 over Roger Sniffen, 6-3, 6-1, after Sniffen had beat Allen for the district crown.
Trent Stukes took his district championship rematch with Carter McNamara at No. 4, repeating his previous victory with a 6-0, 6-3 triumph. At No. 1, Grant topped Hunter Schwefringhaus, 6-3, 6-4.
“I played him before, it was last year,” Grant said. “We’re pretty evenly matched, but I guess it’s just all about who wanted it more and who could play with the wind the best. I learned to adapt, use a lot of topspin when I’m going with the wind, so it ducks down and doesn’t go out.”
In another reversal from the district finals, Nature Coast’s Alec Priede upended Spencer Parker at No. 3, 7-6 (7-5), 6-2, keeping the Sharks temporarily alive.
But the Pirates had an unlikely hero seal the deal, as freshman Josh Reynolds collected a 0-6, 6-2, 10-8 win over Mark Cabahug at No. 5, and got mobbed by his teammates afterward.
“It’s kind of an honor. I lost a lot of games in the season, but the one game that mattered I pulled through, never gave up,” Reynolds said. “I adjusted my game and I really gave it my all, and just came out with a dub (win).”
“Josh really adapted well to the conditions today,” Crystal River assistant coach Phil Castillo said. “He realized that one side played harder than the other side, so he basically gave his opponent nothing to work with, which means his opponent is going to tend to make errors, and that’s exactly what he did. This match really was a match of attrition, and Josh pulled it out.
“Poor guy, he had a tough season, he’s lost a lot of matches. But when the rubber meets the road, he pulled it out. He really, truly did. It was a good gut check for him and I think this is going to carry him to get better and better, and start believing in himself.”
Since the match had already been going on for some time, the No. 1 doubles continued, with Schwefringhaus and Sniffen downing Grant and Allen, 6-2, 7-6 (7-0).
Nevertheless, thanks to the overall outcome the Pirates will head to the Orlando area for the FHSAA Finals, starting next Wednesday.
“I don’t think I’ll realize until I get there,” Crystal River head coach Bill Reyes said. “I’m really excited at the thought of it, but once I see it and I see all the other teams, and know we’re one of the best teams in the state, we’re the best team in this region, I think it will set in that day and that morning.
“Grant and Allen, the seniors, stepped up bigtime, did their job out there. We kind of figured we’d have to win one of these doubles and unbeknownst to us the guy that struggled really, really put it together in the second set, really put it together in the tiebreaker. I’m proud. Josh took us over the finish line and no one would have expected it.
“He took his lumps. He’s a freshman, he’s young, he’s got to learn. All the lessons he took all season long, he implemented right here today, and that’s why we’re going to states.”