Based on the first few weeks of this girls tennis season, the race to the county championship appears as competitive as ever.
Four teams – Central, Hernando, Nature Coast and Springstead – all sport winning records, and have had a slew of 4-3 encounters between them.
The Lady Leopards, however, have risen above the fray so far, pushing their record to 7-0 with a 5-2 victory over Nature Coast Thursday at the Brooksville City Courts.
"It's unbelievable," Hernando head coach Pete Lahey said. "We had no clue coming into the season that we'd do anything like this. But the girls are playing well. They're stepping up to the challenge."
Already the Lady Leopards have surpassed their win total from 2012, when they finished 6-6 overall.
Certainly the addition of freshman Grace Curren to the lineup has proved a difference-maker. Playing No. 1 singles and doubles, she has yet to suffer a defeat.
Against the Lady Sharks (4-2), Curren downed senior Christine Sniffen, 6-0, 6-4, and later teamed with Shelby Marrero to take a doubles pro set over Sniffen and Katie Viola, 8-3.
"I think I had a good serve today, better than I usually do," Curren said. "I just focused on my corner shots more than trying to place it somewhere.
"We all feel really good about (the start to the season). We have a saying, play one point at a time, keep our heads up and keep playing."
The senior Marrero has had her own fine beginning to the 2013 campaign, producing unblemished marks in singles and doubles.
In Thursday's singles action, she topped sophomore Madeline Pickersgill, 6-2, 6-4.
After Katie Viola got Nature Coast on the board with a triumph over Shelby Smith at No. 4, 6-2, 6-0, Hernando pulled out critical victories at No. 3 and No. 5.
First Lida Marie Steinkamp, moved up to the third spot in the lineup with Jada Bergstrom suffering from shin splints, survived a second-set tiebreaker to beat Rosie Witherell, 6-2, 7-6 (7-2).
When Caitlynn Nixon came away victorious from a three-set battle with Dorothy Cash to take the No. 5 matchup, 6-2, 1-6, 6-2, the Lady Leopards had clinched the team win.
The Lady Sharks did capture No. 2 doubles in a pro set, with Pickersgill and Witherell besting Steinkamp and Smith, 8-4.
Nature Coast, typically the county's strongest program, has now endured back-to-back county losses, falling 4-3 to Central last week after squeaking by Springstead two days earlier by the same score.
"It goes to show the parity throughout the county," Nature Coast head coach John Downey said. "It's never been this tough. When it comes down to one-match nights, that's tough.
"We've got a lot of rebuilding to do, and we're still working on it. Everything we do right now is to peak at districts."
Hernando improved to 5-0 within the county, including two wins over Hernando Christian Academy. The Lady Leopards barely defeated Springstead on Feb. 15, 4-3, and have yet to tangle with Central.
"Pasco was a test (a 4-3 win Feb. 11), Springstead was a test, and I knew this would be a close match," Lahey said. "The girls have to play the best they can play and you never know who will come out on top. You just hope to play well enough to come out on top."
Hernando 5, Nature Coast 2
No. 1 – Grace Curren (HER) def. Christine Sniffen, 6-0, 6-4
No. 2 – Shelby Marrero (HER) def. Madeline Pickersgill, 6-2, 6-4
No. 3 – Lida Marie Steinkamp (HER) def. Rosie Witherell, 6-2, 7-6 (7-2)
No. 4 – Katie Viola (NCT) def. Shelby Smith, 6-2, 6-0
No. 5 – Caitlynn Nixon (HER) def. Dorothy Cash, 6-2, 1-6, 6-2
Doubles (pro set)
No. 1 – Curren/Marrero (HER) def. Sniffen/Viola, 8-3
No. 2 – Pickersgill/Witherell (NCT) def. Steinkamp/Smith, 8-4
Records – Hernando (7-0), Nature Coast (4-2).