Regarded as the county's premier softball program for years, Hernando's Lady Leopards have lost their luster of late.
Sure, Hernando has posted five winning campaigns over the past seven seasons under head coach Kevin Bittinger.
If Feb. 8's season-opener against Springstead is successful at Tom Varn Park, Bittinger will pocket his 100th varsity win.
With a win, Bittinger will join an elite Hernando County fraternity featuring Hall of Famer Ernie Chatman (returning to the dugout to guide archrival Nature Coast) and Springstead's Craig Swartout as the only coaches with 100-plus career wins.
The milestone would be nice but as Bittinger enters his eighth season at 99-80 lifetime, he yearns to return the Bell Avenue campus diamond program to its original lofty status and reach the postseason.
To do that, Bittinger's nine returning lettermen including five returning starters from last season's 14-11 squad must wade through an ambitious regular-season schedule.
According to a consensus by the area mentors prior to Hernando County's 24th fast-pitch softball season, Hernando High is the clear choice as the county's best public school team.
Seven-time district champ Hernando Christian Academy remains the lone private school program in the county.
After a county record of 11 regional appearances in 16 seasons from 1990-2006, Hernando hasn't sniffed a playoff berth.
This season, Hernando's preseason optimism is based on nine returning lettermen: seniors Ashley Sims, Bre Mobley and Val Smith; juniors Tana McDaniel, Courtney Riddle and Summer Solovitch; and sophomores Megan Lane, Sierra Cannon and Brianna Brady.
Lane, Riddle, McDaniel and Sims are four of last season's five returning All-County selections.
Lane, a catcher, led the 2012 Lady Leopards to an average of 5.4 runs per game, hitting .453 with 87 percent of her hits (34-of-39) being singles. Remarkably, the Lady Leopard backstop is anything but slow. She stole 49-of-52 bases last spring.
McDaniel, a shortstop, was the middle-of-the-lineup masher hitting .420 with almost half of her hits (16-of-34) being for extra bases, featuring a team-high 30 runs batted in.
Sims, an extremely quick center fielder and venerable leadoff hitter, hit a solid .397 and finished second in stolen bases (33).
Riddle, normally batting cleanup, hit .350 with 19 RBI. On the mound, she will no longer be over shadowed by two-time Player of the Year Alexis Adams of Springstead, who graduated.
Riddle, who fanned 77 batters in 116.1 innings last spring, posted 12 complete games in 15 starts.
"She's put in the work (during the offseason)," indicated Coach Bittinger. "She's gotten a little stronger which will help her rise ball and cutter."
On the team's brutal schedule prior to the Class 5A, District 7 Tournament at Tom Varn, "Districts are tough anyway. We put together as tough a schedule as we could in preparation for the state series," noted Bittinger. "Going, say, 25-0, and scheduling cupcakes doesn't get you out of our district. We created this (schedule) on purpose."
Hernando will not only be hosting its own 15-team (still searching for one more team) tournament during its March 29-30 Easter break, but is also traveling to the April 5-6 Doc-4-Life Tourney at Belleview.
"That's two tough tournaments, plus regular-season games against Belleview and Pasco," admitted Coach Bittinger. "We've got to challenge our girls to see exactly what they can do."
On the Lady Leopards' county prospects, Bittinger dismisses the assertion that they should be handed the county title prior to the first pitch, "We're starting to become a stable group of coaches," he said. "Craig (Swartout) and Tyson (Ellis, head coach of Central) have been around for a while and Coach Chatman knows the game.
"We're not taking anything for granted when we play county teams," said Bittinger. "Obviously, Weeki Wachee is the exception because they're just starting off. But we've got to be ready to play ball against Tyson, Craig or Ernie's teams."
As far as the 5A-7 picture, can the Lady Leopards leap past defending runner-up Dunnellon and/or district champion Tavares?
"Tavares and Eustis are pitching deep," noted Bittinger. "Crystal River and Dunnellon can both hit. I think Nature Coast will be much improved with Ernie there. Our kids got to understand that we've got to bring our 'A' game into any district game."
Springstead is the only Hernando County team to reach the coveted state playoffs each of the past three seasons – coinciding with 59 wins across the three seasons that Adams toiled on the hill for the Lady Eagles.
Adams, along with four-year starters Liz Markidis at second base and Brittany Martinez at shortstop, were perennial All-County picks.
That trio helped guide the Spring Hill nine to two county titles, three straight district finales, back-to-back district championships in 2011-12, and the school's first-ever regional final in 23 seasons last spring.
Swartout begins his 11th season at the helm with seven returning lettermen including: senior Hailey Drawe, junior Brittany Desmond, and sophomores Louisa Disi, Brooke Fischbach, Shelbi Ard, Morgan Selby and Kristen Sanchez.
Drawe, Fischbach and Disi are returning All-County selections.
Drawe is on pace to rewrite the Lady Eagle record book. The freckled-face standout arrives with a career .395 batting average behind 29 extra-base hits and 45 RBIs.
Drawe, who has anchored third base for three seasons, is expected to split time on the mound and at shortstop with Disi.
Disi, a southpaw, threw 13 innings last spring with 11 strikeouts against one walk, while hitting .367 with two homers and 19 RBI.
The catcher Fischbach's strength is at the plate. While hitting .385, she launched four of her team's seven homers last spring and paced a Lady Eagle offense that averaged 5.93 runs per game, with 29 RBI.
On the county, "Hernando definitely has the talent on paper," explained Coach Swartout. 'They're definitely the favorite to win the county again. I really think Central could sneak up on some people."
On the 6A-6 scene, "Districts will be held in West Port, but I don't see anyone steamrolling the district like we did the last two years," he said. "Actually, it's extremely balanced right now. Most folks think its Lecanto's district. I disagree. I think this is as wide open a district as I've seen it in years."
On where Springstead will end up, "We have a lot of young kids that have to grow up very quickly," pointed out Swartout. "Will we be a much better team at the finish line? Absolutely. In between, anything can happen."
Long-suffering Central fans have waited 12 seasons – since 2001's 17-9 campaign under Benny Martinez – for an above .500 program.
In a sign pointing toward the right direction, Central reached double figures in wins last season for the first time since 2004's 11-14 campaign under Angie Svagerko.
Though the Lady Bears are a combined 1-17 over the past three seasons against Hernando County teams, the Brooksville nine returns 10 lettermen, including eight starters from last season's 10-16 club.
Back in the fold are: seniors Katie McCarthy, Rachelle McClean, Mari Goodwin, Casey Vsetula and Rhy Venturella; and juniors Whitney Roberts, Hannah Charlwood, Alex Eisenhauer, Aaliyah Roberts and Allison Lucky.
McCarthy, the county's leading hitter (.564), not only led the circuit in hits (44) and tied for first in homers (four) with Springstead's Fischbach, but led Hernando County in RBI (31).
She's the team's two-time All-County selection and a preseason candidate for Player of the Year.
On what he likes most from this team, "Most of these girls have played for me since their freshman year," pointed out Central's sixth-year skipper Ellis. "We got 10 wins last year. That's the most we've had around here in years."
On the team's leaky defense, which totaled 121 errors or 4.65 miscues per game in 2012, "We have to play better defense than we did last year; it's that simple," lamented Coach Ellis. "I think with a little better pitching, we'll see some improved results. Our bats and pitching will keep us in games."
After three straight winning seasons, Nature Coast head coach Metina Couet decided it was time to start a family following the Lady Sharks' 14-9 campaign in 2010.
Since that point, the Lady Sharks have shuffled their head coaching position. This past summer, Nature Coast hired its fourth softball mentor in four seasons, landing Chatman.
How solid are Chatman's credentials? Of the four Hernando County teams that have ever reached the FHSAA's Final Four, all four were guided by Chatman.
Unlike his last two coaching gigs at Hernando and HCA, the Lady Shark cupboard, however, is not as plentiful.
The Lady Sharks, who enter 2013 with a combined 75-107 all-time with one postseason appearance (2009), are coming off an 8-14 campaign.
Chatman begins his Nature Coast reign with eight returning lettermen: seniors Mariah Crawford and Dana Mackiewicz; juniors Katelyn Glynn and Brooke Majors; and sophomores Katherine Gonzalez, Ashley Leo, Briana Harvey and Courtney David.
The biggest problem might be replacing the staggering numbers produced by two-time All-County pick Jeri Loffler.
Loffler paced the Lady Sharks in nearly every significant offensive category including batting average (.523), hits (24), extra-base hits (17), runs scored (18) and RBI (27). More importantly, she cast a huge shadow in the dugout and in practice as the team's unequivocal leader.
On his initial impressions, "It's a fairly aggressive team," noted Chatman, who enters the season 203-61 lifetime. "Even when we trailed (in Thursday's exhibition loss to Wiregrass Ranch at Zephyrhills) we showed some promise swinging the bats.
"With Loffler gone we've got to have nine people who can swing the bat and put the ball in play," insisted Chatman. "We're mostly a right-handed hitting team; no real (left-handed) slappers. We do have some team speed, now we have to learn how to utilize it."
The Brooksville-based HCA Lady Lions, who finished 16-7 last spring as district runners-up to the loaded Academy at the Lakes in 2A-4, return six starters for 2013.
Those six lettermen include: seniors Holly Field and Ashley McKay, sophomore Chelsea Lowe and Madison Frazier, freshman Kelly Klukowski and eighth-grader Cayla Phillips.
Of the 13 members of head coach Mike Drummond's first team in 2012, seven players are not back as five graduated and two others transferred to Hernando.
The most significant players back revolve around battery mates McKay and Field.
Field is a four-year starter behind the dish and the Lady Lions' lone returning All-County pick from 2012. Field hit a team-high .470 behind 17 extra-base hits, featuring 24 RBIs.
McKay helped herself at the plate hitting .403 with a team-high 25 runs scored, 27 hits and 27 RBI.
On the hill, the right-handed McKay fanned 205 batters in 120.1 innings pitched featuring 19 complete games.
"With Ashley (McKay) and Holly (Field) we'll remain competitive," explained Coach Drummond, who doubles as the school's athletic director. "Plus those two can pick it and that helps our defense up the middle."
On the Lady Lions' 2A-4 aspirations, "We're hosting districts, which is nice," said Coach Drummond. "But the bad news is Academy hasn't lost anybody. Of our seven losses last year, Academy beat us four times. Our goal is to try and close the gap on them and be ready for districts in April."
Weeki Wachee will unveil its inaugural varsity campaign this spring.
Six junior varsity players from last year will lead the way for the first-year program guided by head coach Linda Rogers.
"Our goal is to put the team together by finding the right place for every player," she said. "We're also trying to develop some pitching for the next few seasons."
Weeki Wachee is playing as an independent and as a result will not be competing in district competition.