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How they did it: Sharks end magical season as state runner-up

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Although they came a mere 5 points from winning a state championship, the magnitude of how far this program has come in the past three years under Coach Kevin Whirty cannot be overemphasized.

The Sharks compiled a mediocre 10-16 record in the 2018-19 season before Whirity was hired to lead the Sharks to begin the 2019-20 campaign. It appeared the Sharks were headed for yet another dismal season early into Whirity’s initial season. Ponte Vedra began the season with a woeful 1-4 start, outscored in their four losses to their opponents by an average of 24 points per game.

The fortunes for PVHS basketball would change abruptly when Whirity made a decision to call up to the varsity three players from the JV squad (Luke Pirris, JT Kelly and Nathan Bunkosky) that began their season with a perfect 5-0 record. When I asked Coach Whirity if he ever could envision the success this trio would accomplish over the next couple of seasons Whirity replied: “While I feel all competitors dream and strive for the summit, actually getting there is a completely different story. These guys amazed me daily by their work ethic, but to see them achieve this feat so quickly is absolutely remarkable. They did it as a group and they played the game the right way, as a team!”

The very young squad of 2019-20 suffered a few bumps in the road but Sharks fans could surely see that a great deal of improvement had been made and the future looked much brighter for Ponte Vedra hoops. No longer would the 2019-20 Sharks be a “walk in the park” victim that their opponents could easily put into their victory column. The Sharks would end that season with a losing record of 10-14 but would nearly break even with their three underclassmen in the lineup.

However, the improvement this team made over next two seasons was surreal, as one would have to have an unrealistic vision that Ponte Vedra basketball would soon bring home a state runner-trophy.

The Sharks had a best ever record of 22-5 last season and they did not post this awesome record by merely just trying to outscore their opponents with a racehorse style of basketball. The mind set had completely changed under Whirity’s leadership, and with a starting lineup composed entirely of five players who also played football, the Sharks were winning their games with their defense. 

The youngsters called up from the JV’s the previous season were aided by a trio of seniors who played some inspirational defense. Seniors Alex Madson, Jack Polian and Rory Mayer always played the game at 110% on the court as they raised havoc with their opponents. They set a school record of 22 steals in their playoff game against Terry Parker and three times during the course of the year pilfered the ball 21 times.

Their thirst for defense was passed on to this 2021-22 team who averaged better than 12 steals per contest, just one less per game than the previous season. Coach Whirity lost some great players, and even better leaders, when graduation game at PVHS in the late spring of 2021.

Coach Whirity and the Sharks were given an early Christmas present before the start of this year’s campaign when a Ponte Vedra Beach resident chose to transfer from Bishop Kenny to play with his hometown chums for his senior year.

And what an impact Ross Candelino had with this team! As the season progressed Candelino became more and more comfortable with fitting in with his new mates. Ross would end up the season as the team’s leading scorer at 14 ppg. but his impact was felt in more than just his scoring. 

And what a lasting impression this transfer made on his coach. “Ross truly embraces every aspect of basketball: conditioning, weightlifting, practice, film, scouting, team meals, bus rides and dancing in the locker room. He leads from the front, leaves no man behind and genuinely cares about every member of the team,” lauded Whirity. “While Ross has only been in the program for a year, we all feel like we’ve known Ross our entire lives. He’s a natural leader.”

The 2021-22 Sharks won their first four games before running into a bump in the road at the Fortegra tournament. The Sharks dropped their opener on a desperation 3-pointer with just a few second left on the clock to Riverside. With their “dobbers” still down the Sharks ran into a buzz saw the following afternoon when Episcopal shot the lights out to hand the Sharks their second straight defeat. 

Ponte Vedra would then embark on a streak unprecedented in Shark annals as they began a run where they would emerge victorious in 23 of their next 24 games. It was at a tournament in Naples where the Sharks opened eyes statewide when they swept four down state opponents to bring home the championship trophy. It would be the first of three more pieces of hardware that would add to an already bulging trophy case.

Playing in a very difficult district tournament that included foes like Nease and Fletcher, the Sharks captured the district title with a hard-fought win over a very talented Fletcher five. The win earned the Sharks the number one seed in their region that gave them home-court advantage throughout the regional.

And the Sharks took every advantage of their home court by feeding off the energy from their hometown fans and fellow students who packed the Shark Tank. After a first half that saw the Sharks take but a 1-point lead into the second half, the Sharks exploded in the second half led by senior Luke Pirris’ 24 season-high points.

The Sharks were not just content to make their first ever appearance in the State Final four in Lakeland.  Swishing eight of their 16 three-point attempts, the Sharks made it all the way to the coveted championship contest with a 57-51 win over Winter Haven.

In the state championship contest on March 5 against Martin County, the basket seemed to have a lid on it for the Shark sharp shooters. Many of their attempts were tantalizingly close, but unable to find the bottom of the net as the Sharks shot a season-worse 2-16 behind the arc to fall 53-49 to Martin County.

Despite the defeat, Whirity couldn’t have been prouder of a team that left everything they had out on the court. Trailing by 10 points entering the final quarter, the Sharks did not give up as they played at a frenzy pace that twice had them with the ball and a chance to tie up the game, or take a lead, only to see their shots go astray.

“Proud is an understatement,” said Whirity. “I will always look back to our trip to Lakeland as nothing but a success. The credit belongs to our players playing hard inside the Lakeland arena on both Thursday and Saturday night. Our practices that week were demanding and physical, especially when I removed fouls and allowed for full physical contact. But watching the speed of our players, their level of anticipation and basketball IQ, unselfishness, passing distribution, the charges they took and the amount of bodies diving to the floor while quickly bouncing back to their feet — if that doesn’t make you proud as a coach, parent, or fan …,” said Whirity.

The third-year mentor was quick to lavish his praise on others who played a role in this year’s team’s incredible success. “You can only coach what you know, and no man knows it all,” began Whirity. “I was surrounded by brilliant and unselfish coaches that always put the men and the program first. Without their commitment and basketball knowledge our program would not be what it is today. I can’t thank these guys enough for their countless hours and expertise: Coach Ben Wilson, Coach Kip Wellman, Coach Don Lareau, Coach Brady Hammond. In addition, our JV coaches (Antwoin Conerly and Wil Mons) delivered yet another successful season (only one loss) and continue to prepare our younger players for a successful transition to the varsity ranks.”

The state championship marked the end to an outstanding career for Whirity’s departing seniors. “All our seniors (Luke Pirris, JT Kelly, Gus Jordheim, Charley Hynes and Ross Candelino) have been instrumental in strengthening the foundation of this program. Brick by brick, practice by practice, they have built a winning culture and, more importantly, a Hoop Family. While our seniors will be heading off to conquer this next challenge, their fingerprints will always be all over this program and the banners they achieved will hang for eternity! I will miss them but will be tracking them closely. Some of them may say too closely … you got to love these guys.”

Although it would be unrealistic to expect another run to the state finals next season, the Sharks will return a number of underclassmen who played a huge role in contributing to this season’s success.  Nathan Bunkosky, the MVP of the Naples tournament, will return in the backcourt with sophomore Sam Ritchie, as fine a pair of backcourt hoopsters that will suit up next year along the First Coast. Six-foot three-inch Ben Ritchie played very well off the bench and will provide rebounding strength as well as a deft outside touch from behind the arc. Israel Nuhu, with a summer season of practice and AAU games, could be the ace in the hole for the 2022-23 season.

A number of players from the JV season that dropped but one contest during the entire season could also fill big roles. “The future is bright for PV basketball, and there is definitely a lot of skill, athleticism and heart returning to the program. I like where we are headed, and we’ll continue to strive to be 1% better each day … starting yesterday,” said Whirity.

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