Sharks earn gritty win over Senators for district title


The Ponte Vedra High basketball team outlasted Fletcher 41-37 in a hard-fought district championship battle Feb. 11 at Atlantic Coast High School.

“They’ve got a never quit, stay positive, next play mentality,” Ponte Vedra head coach Kevin Whirity said. “I just love these guys.”

It resembled a heavyweight fight with both teams locking down defensively and adopting a physical style of play.

To win that style of game and on a night when the shots were not falling like they usually would for the Sharks, was impressive and surely sent a message to the other teams in the region with the state playoffs set to begin Feb. 17.

“We’re going to have to win these types of games if we want to make it to Lakeland (for final four),” Ponte Vedra senior Ross Candelino said.

The entire Sharks’ defensive unit did an excellent job disrupting Fletcher’s offensive rhythm by jumping into passing lanes and forcing turnovers and jump balls.

Turnovers led to scoring opportunities in transition, which proved key due to the Sharks struggling to find their shot in the half-court offense.

“When the shots aren’t hitting you have to rely on defense to get you through,” Ponte Vedra junior guard Nate Bunkosky said. “Defense is something we always train hard for, so that it’s there no matter what.”

Bunkosky was one of several players not afraid to sacrifice his body diving on the court for loose balls and harassing ball handlers in the full-court press.

“Not only did Nate run the show on offense, but he also ran it on defense,” Whirity said. “You can tell his defensive safety came out in him. That cat is as quick as lightning.”

The contest was tied at 12 at the end of the first quarter and 20-all at halftime. However, the Senators increased its lead to 34-27 following a three-pointer early in the fourth quarter.

“When you get down, that’s the point when everybody’s got to lift each other up,” Bunkosky said. “My voice is gone because I’ve been talking to the guys all game.”

The Sharks answered by pounding the ball to senior Luke Pirris in the post on consecutive trips down the floor and he worked his magic down low to tie the game at 34 with less than five minutes to play. He finished with 10 points on the night.

“When you’ve played basketball almost your life, to win and even just play in a district championship is amazing,” Bunkosky said. “It just shows how far we’ve come. We’re like brothers and I love them.”

The game went to overtime and the Sharks quickly grabbed the lead following a drive and layup by J.T. Kelly.

Down the stretch, the Sharks had several trips to the free throw line with an attempt to extend their lead but missed some front ends of one-and-one opportunities.

However, the Sharks knocked down some big free throws when the game was on the line, including Kelly and Candelino each knocking down a pair.

“Never was there a lack of energy or effort by both teams,” Whirity said. “That’s what a district championship should be, and I think the fans on both sides should be appreciative of the hard work their players put in.”

Kelly led the Sharks in scoring with 11 points.

The Sharks enter the state playoffs as the No. 1 seed of region 1-6A and will host Booker T. Washington in a regional quarterfinal matchup at 7 p.m. Feb. 17.

Ponte Vedra Sharks, boys basketball, district champions, overtime