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Saturday, Mar 28, 2015

Contenders line path in Leopard Slam III

Hernando Today correspondent


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The 68-team NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament that kicked off this week isn't the only local topic of conversation.

This weekend's 16-team Lady Leopard Slam III along the three ball fields at Brooksville's Tom Varn Park - hosted by Hernando High - may serve as the greatest collection of diamond talent on the North Suncoast this side of the April 14 beginning of the state series.

The field features 16 teams representing eight counties (Hernando, Pasco, Citrus, Marion, Sumter, Lake, Seminole and Palm Beach) including: Belleview, Central, South Sumter, Del Ray Beach-American Heritage, Mitchell, Nature Coast Technical, Pasco, First Academy-Leesburg, Fivay, Lecanto, Mount Dora Bible, River Ridge, Citrus, The Villages, Winter Springs and host Hernando.

The defending tourney champion is River Ridge. The 2012 champ was Fort Lauderdale-University School of Nova Southeastern.

Each team is guaranteed at least three games. Action begins both today and Saturday at 9 a.m. and running until 10 p.m. The title game set for 7 p.m. Saturday.

In a word this field is loaded.

A tourney committee selected the four top seeds: Hernando, Mitchell, River Ridge and American Heritage.

The road warrior moniker belongs to American Heritage. AHHS is commuting four hours and nearly 245 miles to this weekend's event. The Lady Stallions are the three-time defending Class 3A state champions.

Yet, they're not the only credentialed team in the field; far from it.

Mount Dora Bible (1999) and Lecanto (1996) are two other teams with state championship banners back home.

Six others - River Ridge (2002-03), Hernando (2000), Citrus (1997), Belleview (2012), Pasco (2007) and Winter Springs (2011) - have all finished as high state runners-up.

The main reason for the event is understandable. How better to prepare for the rigors of the state series than by playing several stout teams across two intense days in a travel ball tourney-type setup?

Veteran River Ridge skipper Ernie Beck is cautiously optimistic. The Royal Knights arrive 13-1 overall, fresh from a four-game sweep of the Palm Harbor University Tourney.

Across last weekend's event in Pinellas County, Beck's crew slayed the field outscoring its opponents, 44-1.

"We know Mitchell, Fivay, Hernando and us are pretty tough," detailed Beck. "But a lot of these other these teams you really don't know what they've done and who they've faced.

"Sure, you can go online and see a bunch of .300 or better batting averages, but what have those same batters hit against stout competition?" said Beck. "To me, you rate your team based on what you do against quality pitching."

The Royal Knights' goal, according to Beck, is to play some different teams and work through some things.

Beck's likes his side of the bracket. RRHS opens with The Villages before facing the Belleview/Central survivor in today's second round.

With two wins today, RRHS expects to clash in Saturday morning's semifinal with American Heritage. AHHS began the week at 9-4.

In last year's tourney semifinal, the Royal Knights nipped Hernando in an epic 1-0 victory.

RRHS went on the beat Clearwater-Countryside in the tourney final, 6-2.

"I like my side of the bracket," declared Beck, who has guided the Royal Knights to 15 regional appearances since 1995. "The strength of our team is our leadership. This group can't practice enough. It always helps when you have talent. When we won at Palm Harbor, I overheard the girls say that the best thing to happen to us this year was losing to Fivay, 1-0. That loss kind of woke us up."

? ? ?

In the eyes of ninth-year Hernando mentor Kevin Bittinger, his Lady Leopards are at a crossroad.

HHS arrives with a glossy 11-1 won-lost record and reached as deep as River Ridge in making last year's regional finals - but that's not enough.

Since April 29, 2004's Class 3A, District 6 title win over Pasco at Tom Varn Park, HHS has captured exactly one of its last 16 tournaments - last spring's 5A-7 crown over Tavares in eight innings, 4-3.

To say the Lady Leopards are hungry would be a colossal understatement.

Since losing March 4 at archrival Nature Coast, 5-4, HHS has quietly pieced together four victories - albeit against four losing teams.

"To me, it's gut-check time for Hernando High softball," explained Bittinger, who arrives 132-89 lifetime. "This tournament isn't about winning or losing, it's about whether we've got the goods to compete for a state title or whether we're just a bunch of talkers.

"Personally, I want to see us step up to the challenge and find a way to make it happen," he said. "We've got to impose our will. It's all about creating runs and creating wins. I told the girls, we've got 13 regular-season games left before districts.

"I'll be honest," said Bittinger. "I don't know based on what we've done so far, if we have what it takes. The great thing is we have all the necessary tools to get the job done."

Bittinger, who guided HHS to a second-place finish in 2012 and a third-place tourney finish last season, admits American Heritage's participation in this weekend's event is a feather in the cap.

"I'm so happy American Heritage is coming," he said. "I'll guarantee you they're not driving almost four hours and almost 250 miles to play a few pick-up games."

On this year's field, "It's an upgrade from last year. We've got 10 teams that were in the playoffs and four that were district champions (Hernando, Lecanto, American Heritage and River Ridge)," noted Bittinger.

"To me, this is a great mix of local teams in a great tournament setting. Every coach's goal this weekend is to get tested. Every team coming in will get at least two quality games, maybe three."

HHS opens play at 9 a.m. today against Mount Dora Bible (9-2-1). With a first-round victory, the Purple and Gold will face the First Academy-Leesburg/Lecanto survivor at 3 p.m.

By sweeping both of today's tilts, expect HHS to tangle with either Fivay (9-3), NCT (12-0) or Mitchell (13-0) in Saturday's 11:30 a.m. semifinal.

? ? ?

Last spring, Nature Coast went 3-1 at the Slam II placing fifth in the 16-team event.

NCT enters riding a school-record 12-game winning streak. That's not bad for a program that's never won a district championship in a decade of play.

Even with savvy second-year skipper Ernie Chatman at the helm, the Lady Sharks may have the toughest path to hoe to win the Slam III.

The Lady Sharks open today against dangerous Fivay, which handed River Ridge its only loss. With a win, NCT is expected to butt heads most likely against unbeaten Mitchell.

Should the Brooksville nine win twice today, they'll clash against rival Hernando in Saturday's semifinal.

Even if Chatman's crew successfully navigates through the first three mine fields - it'll most likely face either American Heritage or River Ridge in Saturday night's final.

"The field is absolutely solid," expressed Coach Chatman, a Florida Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Famer with a career 230-74 mark. "To bring in a state champ to a local tournament is a tremendous achievement. Hat's off to Kevin (Bittinger) for a getting such a great field together."

On forecasting the event, "American Heritage and River Ridge may be the best two teams coming, but only one can make it to the finals," said Chatman. "There are no easy games, especially on our side of the bracket. We're going to face quality teams in every round."

On NCT's titles chances, "We're not going to talk about Saturday before playing Friday," stressed Chatman. "We knew Fivay's pitcher is a gamer. She's got a great rise ball. The key is to put the ball in play.

"I'd love to face Mitchell, but we've got to stay in the moment," added Chatman. "Our No. 1 priority is focusing in on Fivay. That game will determine what we do after that."

Central went 3-1 in Slam II en route to an 18-win season.

A year later - without four-year starter Katie McCarthy - the circumstances have changed for the Lady Bears.

Under seven-year mentor Tyson Ellis, Central arrives 5-8 this season. The Lady Bears' shaky defense and lack of overall consistency have been the most troubling issues.

CHS opens at 11:30 a.m. today against red-hot Belleview. After opening the season 0-2, the Diamondback Rattlers began the week riding a nine-game win skein.

Should CHS solve BHS, a second-round today clash with River Ridge looms.

"We're looking forward to the tournament," shared Ellis, who is 60-96 lifetime. "Kevin has done a great job assembling the field. We're happy to be in it. We're in a lot better shape than we were last year when we only had nine players for the second day."

The key for the Lady Bears, according to Ellis, is basic.

"To date, we've been making mistakes at bad times and we've been struggling with our consistency," he said. "One day, we pitch well, but we don't hit. The next game, we'll swing the bats well, but we let down defensively," he added.

As far as tourney favorites, "It's a stout field with River Ridge, Hernando, Nature Coast and American Heritage," pointed out Ellis. "There are so many good teams coming. Hopefully, we'll find out a little more about ourselves."

At a Glance

What - Lady Leopard Softball Slam III.

Who - Sixteen teams including: Belleview, Central, South Sumter, Del Ray Beach-American Heritage, Mitchell, Nature Coast Technical, Pasco, First Academy-Leesburg, Fivay, Lecanto, Mount Dora Bible, River Ridge, Citrus, The Villages, Winter Springs and host Hernando. The defending tourney champion is River Ridge.

When - Today and Saturday, with action beginning both days at 9 a.m. and running until 10 p.m. Title game set for 7 p.m. Saturday. Each team is guaranteed at least three games.

Where - Tom Varn Park

At Stake - Team trophies awarded Saturday night to the top three finishing teams.

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