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Published:   |   Updated: March 12, 2013 at 02:32 PM

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Over the past three seasons, Hernando High has already left its mark on the county record book.

The Leopards have advanced to at least the Elite Eight in each of those years, something no other county team has ever achieved.

A year ago the question was whether Hernando could continue its recent run of success after graduating six All-County selections.

But the Leopards reloaded rather than rebuilt, and now they have a realistic chance of adding on to what they've done in 2010-12.

They've retained the services of two Division I signees, shortstop Christian Arroyo (University of Florida) and pitcher Brandon Lawson (USF).

Add in two other All-County selections from last season, Jake Johnson and Trae Ratliff, and Hernando possess a strong senior core under longtime head coach Tim Sims.

"It's a veteran group that's been around a lot of years," Sims said. "Most of them are two-year starters and this is their third year. We're settling in pretty good. The senior leadership is pretty good.

"The competition (for positions) has been very good, as well. I'm pleased with how we've started."

Beginning his 18th year at the helm, and his fifth since returning from a two-year hiatus, Sims is five away from matching his mentor, Ernie Chatman, for second on the school's all-time wins list and needs 10 more to break the 300 barrier.

Coming off an 18-11 campaign in which they finished runner-up in Class 5A, District 7, the Leopards along with Eustis appear district favorites once again.

However, Tavares ended up taking the 5A-7 title last season, knocking off the Panthers and Leopards in consecutive upsets before falling to Hernando in the regional semifinals.

"If we're not in the toughest district in the state, it's pretty close," Sims said. "We have to bring our 'A' game as a team and individuals every night.

"It's a new team every year. This is a senior class with a lot of experience, but you've got to go out and prove it. If we do that every day on a daily basis, where we improve from start to finish, we've got a chance to be competitive."

The Leopards' fortunes largely rest on the right arm of Lawson, the 2012 Hernando Today Player of the Year.

As a junior, in his first year playing for Hernando, he collected the county Triple Crown in pitching, leading in wins with an 8-3 mark, ERA (1.87) and strikeouts (100).

Additionally he served as the team's cleanup hitter, and center fielder when not on the mound, hitting .322 with three home runs and 21 runs batted in.

Arroyo, a slick-fielding infielder who hit .306 with 16 RBI and 25 runs scored last year, made offseason headlines as the tournament MVP while helping Team USA win the XXV IBAF 18U Baseball World Championship in Seoul, South Korea.

Ratliff, who this week signed with St. Johns River State College in Palatka, proved himself a more-than-capable arm behind Lawson compiling a 4-3 record, 2.23 ERA and 59 strikeouts as a junior.

Johnson has been one of the best bats in the area for the last two seasons, averaging .425, smacking eight doubles and two homers, and driving 22 runs while scoring 21 as a junior.

Having spent last year behind the plate, Johnson will shift to first base in a move Sims said improves the team's defense and Johnson's stock in the eyes of college scouts.

Like Hernando, Springstead boasts a solid core of returnees, including three senior All-County picks in first baseman/pitcher Brandon Brosher, shortstop/pitcher Ryan Nicoll and utility man Nic Pasarela, plus junior second baseman Blake Laferty.

But the Eagles have a new headman in the dugout in Jim Diven, and he hopes to improve upon a turmoil-filled 13-9 showing the previous season.

"Starting at a new place is not like being there for a few years," said Diven, who had two sons play for Springstead the past three seasons. "There are a lot of things to do. But it's going pretty good. I think the team is getting used to the new program."

Brosher, who signed with D-I Oral Roberts University in the offseason, has been the county's finest power hitter the last two years, coming off a season in which he hit .403 with four home runs and 19 RBI.

He's also been one of the better pitchers, though arm trouble limited him to 19 innings last year.

Nicoll is no slouch, either, the two-time All-County pick hitting .380 and scoring 30 runs with 17 driven in out of the leadoff spot a year ago.

Having gone 3-1 with a 2.44 ERA on the mound as a junior, Nicoll will join Brosher to head what Diven promises will be a deep pitching staff.

Pasarela (.319, 22 runs in 2012) and Laferty will help shore up the infield, and the addition of senior Will Perdomo gives the Eagles another option at third and a hard-throwing closer.

"If we play to our potential, I believe we'll win the district," Diven said. "If we go through the season and stay as a team and continue to jell as we have so far, we definitely have a shot to do that."

Central head coach Al Sorrentino, whose Bears reside in 6A-6 along with Springstead, believes the Eagles are the district favorite by virtue of their experience.

The Bears, 10-14 last year, are a young group, with one returning All-County player in senior third baseman/second baseman Zack Taylor (.379, 19 runs in 2012).

Trevor McKenna (2-7, 3.87 ERA, 41 strikeouts) is at the front of a pitching staff devoid of seniors. In fact, the roster as a whole contains seven sophomores.

Sorrentino says his team will rely on pitching and defense, and because the rest of the district beyond Springstead – Citrus, Lecanto and Ocala-West Port – is likewise generally inexperienced, he has high expectations.

"I think we can be one of the top two teams in the district by the end of the year," Sorrentino said. "Our goal is to make the playoffs this year.

"Our pitching needs to stay healthy and like anybody we've got to avoid injuries to key guys. And we have play smart baseball. We can't have mental lapses that end up costing us runs and end up costing us games."

Vito Tambasco Sr. enters some rare company this season.

Dan Garofano was head coach of Nature Coast over its first four years. Since he departed in 2007, the Sharks have never had the same man at the helm for two consecutive seasons.

That dubious streak has come to end, as Tambasco returns hoping to lift the Sharks beyond their 7-16 performance in 2012.

"We lost nine seniors from last year," Tambasco said. "We're in rebuilding mode. I've got six seniors, but only two have played fulltime. The rest are juniors and sophomores.

"We hope like last year we can get some wins and be productive. We should be more competitive."

The pitching staff, featuring senior lefty Drue Brooks, and two right-handers, junior Chris Lake and sophomore Vito Tambasco Jr., figures to be the backbone of the club, like Hernando competing in 5A-7.

"Time is going to tell. I think we're going to do fine and progress as the year goes on," Coach Tambasco said. "It's a very good group of kids. They're close together, they play together."

While the Sharks attempt to reclaim their former glory, Weeki Wachee is just trying to gain a foothold in its second varsity season.

With essentially the same roster back, the Hornets (0-21 in 2012) will lean on players such as sophomore C.J. Flaherty and junior Josh Rivera, as well as senior pitchers Dustin Bauer and Cody Hammond, while trying to make some noise in 4A-6.

"I have high expectations. I know the guys have high expectations, as well," Weeki Wachee head coach Patrick McHugh said. "We're learning. We're still very young, maybe not grade-wise but in terms of experience on the varsity level. We've made huge strides, but we have to show it on the field.

"We've come into an identity offensively. We understand with the size of our home field, we're not going to be a bunch of power hitters. We've got to play small ball and build our team around speed and pitching."

HCA is rebuilding in the truest sense of the word. A program that went to the Sweet 16 three times from 2006-09 has hung by a thread recently, and will play as an independent for the second year in a row. The Lions went 0-8 last season.

New head coach Tony Alvarez, an assistant on the team last year, wants to change the culture. However, with an 11-man roster roughly half-comprised of middle schoolers, there will be growing pains.

"Right now we're making small improvements. It's definitely a work in progress," Alvarez said. "We're trying to lay the foundation for the future, assemble the building blocks of a program; not just put a team together.

"If my guys come to practice consistently every day and listen, I know they'll work hard, I'd consider that a step in the right direction. I'm not measuring this season on wins and losses." (352) 544-5288

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