Central entered last week’s Class 6A, District 7 title game in the familiar role of underdog.

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The Bears were playing rival Nature Coast, a program that has dominated Hernando County competition in recent years.

Few thought the Sharks could lose. After all, Nature Coast finished the regular season undefeated for the first time. And the Sharks had won 17 straight against Central and were 62-1 against county foes since 2010.

Nature Coast was supposed to be too experienced. Too explosive. Too much.

The Bears did not listen. They believed. That confidence helped them pull off the 67-59 upset to advance to the region playoffs for the first time since 2004.

"It had been so long since we had beaten Nature Coast," Central coach Matt Zandecki said. "I don’t know if we were scared or intimidated. But for some reason we just didn’t play our best against them. But we kept getting better and knew we could do it."

After starting 6-7, the Bears have gone on to win 13 of their past 15 games. One of the losses during that stretch was in overtime to Springstead.

The turnaround had a lot to do with finding more balance on offense. Central relied on junior Caleb Johnson to do the bulk of the scoring early on. Johnson delivered, scoring 40 against Crystal River and 38 against Springstead.

But the Bears needed others to produce to take the pressure off Johnson. They are now getting it with Sam Garner (11.4 points per game) and Andrew Krienes (11.1) each averaging double figures.

Garner, a 6-foot senior guard, had a team-high 21 points in the win over Nature Coast in the district final. Krienes, a 6-6 senior forward, is an inside presence who also is averaging 8.7 rebounds.

Another key addition is De’Vonta Smith, the school’s record-setting running back who decided to join the team in the second half of the season.

Tonight, the Bears host Ridgewood in their first playoff game in more than a decade. To keep this run going, Central will have to stop the Rams’ Ty Quiroz, who set a school record with 41 points in a game earlier this season.

"The district title was a huge accomplishment, but I’ve been telling the kids that our story is not finished," Zandecki said. "There are other goals to accomplish."

Getting healthy

St. Petersburg and Berkeley Prep both made the playoffs thanks to the return of two key players.

The Green Devils’ Darius Banks, a four-star recruit, missed most of the season with an ankle injury. The senior, who averaged 21 points and eight rebounds a year ago, returned for the final five games of the regular season with limited playing time.

That was by design. St. Petersburg coach Chris Blackwell wanted to ease Banks back into the lineup so his star player could get back into playing shape and be fully recovered for last week’s Class 8A, District 10 tournament.

The plan worked. Banks helped the Green Devils (15-10) win their third straight district title (22 points in the final vs. Countryside) and make the playoffs a fifth straight season. St. Petersburg hosts Plant City tonight. The Raiders are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

The Bucs, meanwhile, played nearly the entire season without Kaleeyl Findlay, a 6-foot-4 senior forward who was out with a knee injury.

Findlay came back for the National Hoopfest that Berkeley Prep hosted last month. But he played sparingly because he was still sore. After taking two weeks off, Findlay returned for last week’s Class 5A, District 9 tournament. He scored 13 points and had eight rebounds in the Bucs’ semifinal win over Clearwater Central Catholic, which had swept Berkeley (18-10) during the regular season.

Coach Bobby Reinhart said Findlay was sore again after the CCC game. Findlay skipped the district final against Tampa Catholic. His status for tonight’s game at Community School of Naples is uncertain.

Findlay’s return would be welcomed considering Berkeley Prep is facing CSN’s Trent Buttrick, a 6-foot-7 forward who has committed to Penn State.

Contact Bob Putnam at bputnam@tampabay.com or @BobbyHomeTeam.

Back in the mix

Central is not the only area team that ended a long playoff drought.

Spoto (6A)

Last appearance: None

Countryside (8A)

Last appearance: 2001

Admiral Farragut (4A)

Last appearance: 2011

Boca Ciega (7A)

Last appearance: 2013

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