In the early going Tuesday night at Emerson Field, Christian Arroyo found himself on the ground writhing in pain.
By the end of the Class 5A, Region II semifinal, it was Hernando’s senior shortstop doling out the punishment.
Arroyo’s two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth inning erased a 1-0 deficit and a no-hit bid by Eustis starter Alex Hagner, and put the host Leopards in front to stay en route to a 3-1 victory.
“I knew it was crunch time,” Arroyo said. “I didn’t want this to be my last high school baseball game, in this uniform. Wearing this, I take so much pride in it. I want to go out on a good note. Going up I had one thought: Hit the crap out of the ball.”
For the fourth straight season, Hernando (24-5) has advanced to the Elite Eight. It will attempt to capture its second regional crown in three years on Friday, when it hosts St. Johns-Creekside in the 5A-II final at 7 p.m.
“It all starts with the coaches,” Arroyo said. “You don’t go year in and year out making the Elite Eight solely on talent. You’ve got to have coaching and we have it from top to bottom.
“And when you have a team that truly believes and plays as a team and a unit, that’s when you’ve got something special.”
The Panthers had won all five contests over the last three campaigns until Hernando’s 5-2 triumph in the 5A-District 7 championship tilt on April 26.
Leopard ace Brandon Lawson hadn’t appeared on the mound against Eustis this year, but that changed when he got the nod in this one, coming off a dominant performance in last week’s 5-0 quarterfinal win over Wesley Chapel.
The senior right-hander found himself in some trouble in the top of the first, thanks to a leadoff infield single by Austin Simmons, an error and a walk to Hagner.
Facing a bases-loaded, one-out situation, Lawson received a visit from head coach Tim Sims.
“The first inning, I went out there to slow everything down,” Sims said. “They put the ball in play and that made for a couple of tough plays that we didn’t make.
“That whole thing was to try to get him in a rhythm to where he was confident and aggressive in the zone.”
Lawson got Max Sellers to hit a chopper to third baseman Trae Ratliff, who easily threw out Simmons at the plate.
A passed ball allowed Chris Okey to race home before Lawson recorded a strikeout to end the inning.
The bottom half opened with Arroyo getting plunked on the left knee by Hagner. Arroyo made it a few feet down the first-base line, then crumpled to the grass clutching his knee.
He eventually made it back to his feet, and after several minutes was able to walk it off and remain in the game.
“It hurt,” said Arroyo, who added he was feeling fine after the game. “You’ve just got to play through it. It’s a big game. I’ve got to be there for my team. I was just worried about the score and how to get the ‘W.’”
Arroyo didn’t believe there was any intent to harm him. Both he and Hagner are signed with the University of Florida, and Okey, the catcher, was a teammate with Team USA at the XXV IBAF 18U Baseball World Championship in Seoul, South Korea last summer.
Hagner danced in and out of trouble throughout the first four frames, issuing four walks yet striking out seven without allowing a hit.
Hernando loaded the bases with one out in the first, and Ratliff’s liner up the middle would have surely scored a couple if not for a diving catch by shortstop Jonathan Mosos, who ran to second to complete a double play.
Finally the Leopards got to Hagner in the fifth. He walked ninth-place hitter Garrett Treverton to begin the inning, bringing Arroyo to the plate.
That’s when Arroyo hammered a pitch from his potential future teammate over the fence in left-center. He has now gone yard 11 times this season.
“That’s as good a matchup as you’ll see in the state,” Sims said. “(Hagner) left a change-up/curveball up and (Arroyo) put a good swing on it. That was a big-time swing, and you could see the wind come out of their sails.”
Arroyo said it all started with his second at-bat, when he hit a hard grounder to third and reached on a fielder’s choice in the third.
“I saw a good pitch, I got a fastball and I put a good swing on it,” Arroyo said of his second time up. “I was seeing the ball well tonight.
“We were down by a run. I was not trying to do too much. I got a good pitch, I happened to make a good swing on it. I was trying to make contact. A double or a single was just as good to me.”
Brooks Timmons followed with a walk to knock out Hagner. The senior righty struck out seven against a hit and six walks in four-plus innings, giving up three runs.
Sophomore Justin Young tacked on a two-out, pinch-hit single grounded to right to drive in Timmons later in the fifth.
Lawson, signed to USF, improved to 11-0, going the distance yielding four hits and two walks. He struck out 12 and the run against him was unearned.
“It was a little bit of a rocky start, but this game was a full team effort. We definitely put our all into this game,” Lawson said. “This is what we’ve wanted all along, we wanted to go back to the Elite Eight.
“I had a tight strike zone. I threw it in there and if I got behind, I just threw it in there and hopefully they’d miss or I’d get a groundout or a fly out.”
With only two off days before the next game, Lawson certainly won’t be able to take that start. He said he might be available for relief work, though he didn’t feel like the probable starter Ratliff (6-1, 1.80 earned run average) would need the help.
Whatever happens, the Leopards know they have another opportunity to add to this historic run. Prior to this, no county program had ever reached the Elite Eight twice in a row.
“I watched one and now I’ve been with two (Elite Eight appearances),” Lawson said. “It has definitely been special all three years for me to a part of it. Someday we’ll look back when we’re older and say how great it was what we accomplished.
“We’re trying to leave a legacy for other (Hernando High) teams. Hopefully they beat us.”
Hernando 3, Eustis 1
Class 5A, Region II recap
Hernando 5, Wesley Chapel 0
Eustis 3, Pasco 1
Green Cove Springs-Clay 11, Citra-North Marion 0
St. Johns-Creekside 8, Palatka 4
Hernando, 3 Eustis 1
Creekside 8, Clay 4
Creekside at Hernando, 7 p.m.