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Citrus defender Mikey Gatto (6) wraps up Nature Coast ball carrier Fabian Burnett as fellow Hurricanes Nick Lopez (7) and Geoff Banning (3) look to help with the stop. The season came to a close for the Hurricanes on Friday night in Brooksville with a 28-6 Class 5A regional quarterfinal loss to Nature Coast.

BROOKSVILLE — When the Citrus High football team looks back upon its 2019 season, it’ll find just one team that tripped it up.

Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, it the was the team that mattered most. Citrus made its first playoff appearance since 2013 on Friday night, but it couldn’t extend its stay, falling at Nature Coast in a Region 5A-2 quarterfinal, 28-6.

“The kids played good. I’m not disappointed in them at all. We worked hard this week at practice. Of course, it’s always disappointing not to get that win and get to the (next) round,” Citrus interim head coach McKinley Franklin said. “I love those 25 seniors we have. They deserve to be able to keep playing football. It’s just we played a good Nature Coast football team tonight.”

The ’Canes (9-2) also played the Sharks (6-5) at the Citrus Bowl on Oct. 18 and suffered their only loss of the regular season, 39-14. That lone defeat was costly, as it allowed Nature Coast to clinch the district championship.

This time around there was even more on the line, and the Sharks made an immediate statement when Kinyatah Morgan returned the opening kickoff 53 yards to the Citrus 32-yard line. It took Nature Coast seven plays to find the end zone, Dedric Hall taking a direct snap in Wildcat formation and scoring from 7 yards out.

Hall ended the ’Canes ensuing first possession with an interception, and then after a 35-yard run by Lenkel Smith got the Sharks into Citrus territory, Hall carried a few defenders as he fought his way into the end zone for a 5-yard scoring run, pushing it to 14-0 at 2:21 in the first quarter.

With 5:14 to go in the half, Hall made it a hat trick with his third rushing touchdown, this one from 7 yards out, and Nature Coast ended up carrying a 21-0 advantage into halftime and through a scoreless third quarter.

Meanwhile, the ’Canes were dealt a critical blow when wingback T.J. Weems Jr. suffered what appeared to be a leg injury early and never returned, having never touched the ball.

Citrus did have senior quarterback Connor Bishop back under center after he missed the season finale at Crystal River, but the team was plagued by turnovers. The first three possessions for the ’Canes ended in either an interception or a fumble, and five of their first eight drives, with one ending due to time expiring in the half.

“Connor’s fine, Connor threw the ball well tonight. We just played a good Nature Coast football team,” Franklin said. “Two good teams come out and play, someone’s got to win and tonight just wasn’t our night.

“Our kids played hard. They fought hard. We had some mishaps and we fumbled the ball a couple times. We drove the ball on them. We just didn’t hit the key moments when we needed to.”

Citrus did finally put together a 12-play, 75-yard drive resulting in a 1-yard touchdown run for Zaire Wilcox with 2:46 left to play.

But given a short field thanks to an onside kick, the Sharks tacked on one last dagger with a 40-yard touchdown pass from Fabian Burnett to Cai Teague as 2:29 remained. Nature Coast will move on to face the region’s top seed, Jones High, in next Friday’s semifinals.

So ended what began as a promising campaign for the ’Canes, but one that also concluded in bizarre fashion with the resignation of head coach Robert O’Brien prior to the final game of the regular season.

“Love, grit and fearlessness is how I grade our season. That’s what our kids gave,” Franklin said. “We instill that in our kids and that’s what they gave every game.”

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Contact Chronicle sports reporter Chris Bernhardt at 352-563-5660, chris.bernhardt@chronicleonline.com or on twitter @cpbernhardtjr.

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