On a night when the Hernando High defense played fast and loose – behind a game-high five errors – the Lady Leopards survived converting big play after each 11th-hour big play to eliminate host Gulf, 3-1.
Hernando (22-7) claimed its sixth straight win ousting the pesky host Lady Buccaneers (15-14) in Tuesday’s Class 5A, Region II semifinal thanks to junior right-hander Courtney Riddle’s four-hitter and clutch two-run double in the sixth.
“We made some mistakes, but we also made some big plays,” pointed out the 17-year-old Riddle. “It was funny, normally I don’t get nervous, but the closer we got to the final out, things started to tighten up.”
On her key two-bagger, she said, “Earlier in that at-bat, I missed a squeeze, so all I wanted to do was just hit the ball hard somewhere.”
Riddle (22-6) not only notched her county-high 25th complete game in 28 starts, but survived three walks, one hit batter and one wild pitch. She fanned three.
Riddle was touched up for her fourth homer of the season – her second in two games – to travel ball battery mate Nikki Sedivy.
Sedivy, who came in scorching-hot hitting .412, belted her third postseason tater over the left-field fence to tie the game with one out in the fourth.
Until Sedivy’s blast, HHS led as junior second sacker Summer Solovitch’s perfectly executed squeeze bunt single knocked in fleet-footed senior Ashley Sims earlier in the frame.
After Sedivy’s tater, the game remained deadlocked until Lady Buc junior right-hander Madison Morlan (10-13) opened the sixth permitting a bunt single to sophomore catcher Megan Lane.
Sims, who came 10-of-12 in the postseason, reached base in all three trips to the plate.
Sims, who singled in the first and walked and scored in the fourth, coaxed a four-pitch free pass.
With no outs, junior shortstop Tana McDaniel laid down a sacrifice bunt pushing Lane and Sims into scoring position.
Riddle, who launched a key three-run double to right during a 9-2 come-from-behind Leopard Slam win over Gulf, 9-2, this time victimized Morlan with a two-run double to left: notching her county-leading 41st and 42nd runs batted in.
Riddle’s mound guile made the lead stand up.
In the fourth, with runners at second and third, she punched out Taylor Cook for the critical third out.
In the sixth, with runners at first and second, a pitch bounced into and out of the glove of All-County receiver Lane.
Lane pounced on the ball and fired a strike to third sacker Danielle Harvey, who tagged out courtesy runner Lora Scudlo.
In the bottom of the seventh, Bernie Anderson reached on a bunt single before Cook coaxed a free pass. Alyssa Mulroy grounded back to Riddle, who fired a seed to Harvey at third to retire Anderson.
Again with two runners on with one out, a ball popped away from Lane. Once again GHS attempted to force the issue sending Cook toward third. Lane rifled another relay to Harvey, who tagged out Cook for the second out.
The hosts remained alive when typically sure-handed McDaniel was charged with her third error muffing a Britney Pressler grounder.
With the tying runs aboard and two outs, Hannah McCarthy cued a pop-up that Solovitch dove for and caught for the critical final out.
Morlan, whose team committed three errors in the previous loss at Brooksville, took some consolation watching the hosts convert 30-of-30 chances.
Offensively, Riddle stymied the Lady Bucs, entering with .323 team batting average, to a 4-for-25 effort (.160).
Regardless how it looked in the end, HHS will face Wednesday’s matinee winner of St. Augustine-Creekside at Citra-North Marion at 7 p.m. Friday in the 5A-II final.
“We had some miscues,” explained HHS’ eighth-year skipper Kevin Bittinger. “But when we needed someone to step and make a play, they did.”
On Lane’s last two assists, “Megan throwing out those last two runners was huge,” noted Bittinger.
On Solovitch’s continued heroics, “Summer has stepped up every time we’ve needed a really big play,” pointed out Bittinger. “Today, she didn’t deliver a double to beat Tavares; she dropped down a perfect bunt. It couldn’t have been any better.
“And then she makes the game’s final out from her knees when we really needed it.”
On Riddle’s all-round efforts, “This is the way Courtney has played all season,” declared Bittinger. “She’s had huge hit after huge hit. She did it again in the clutch tonight. Give her all the credit for getting out of the jams we slipped into.”
Bittinger praised the Lady Bucs, saying, “Sedivy is a great catcher. And their leadoff batter (Pressler) is tough, too. I thought we made a great 3-2 pitch to Nikki and she went and got all of it. That’s what great hitters do.
“Credit belongs to (Gulf head coach) Rick (Hohenthaner), Gulf has done nothing but get better since he took over,” noted Bittinger, who improved to 10-3 lifetime while HHS climbed to 17-3 since 1997 against GHS. “Gulf is a quality, quality opponent.”
From the visitors’ dugout, “We made big plays at the right time,” said the 16-year-old Lane, who arrived converting 198-of-201 total chances on defense. “Even though the game was close, I wasn’t nervous; we’ve played in a lot of games just like this.
On describing Riddle’s efforts, “She didn’t let the strike zone bother her. It seems in every game she does what she normally does,” added Lane. “The double was huge because it gave us back the lead and added an extra run.”
“The last couple times I tried to bunt, I flubbed it up,” remarked the 16-year-old Solovitch. “This time I just waited for my pitch. I’m so glad we scored on the play – it was huge.”
On the Lady Leopards’ sub-par defensive efforts, “Megan (Lane) and Dani (Harvey) made great plays to keep us in it,” reminded Solovitch.
On hosting Friday’s regional final, “This is what we’ve all wanted,” she said. “We wanted to play at the house with a chance to go to states.”
Hernando 3, Gulf 1
123 456 7 R H E
HER 000 102 0 – 3 6 5
GF 000 100 0 –1 3 0
HER – Riddle and Lane.
GF – Morlan and Sedivy.
W – Riddle (22-6). L – Morlan (10-13).
2B – Riddle (HER).
HR – Sedivy (GF).
Records – Hernando (22-7), Gulf (15-14).
Class 5A, Region II Girls Softball Recap
Hernando 12, Pasco 2 (5½ Inns.)
Gulf 6, Tavares 1
Hernando 3, Gulf 1
St. Augustine-Creekside at Citra-North Marion, postponed due to weather
Will be played 05-01, 1 p.m.