BROOKSVILLE – The Belleview Diamondback Rattlers, who were two years removed from finishing as Class 5A state runners-up, earned a return trip to Friday’s 27th annual FHSAA Finals by hammering Hernando Monday at Tom Varn Park, 18-4.
Entering the 5A-Region II final, Belleview (25-5) arrived hitting a collecting .426 as a team. It turned out BHS lived up to its advanced billing.
On the flip side, HHS (27-3) right-hander Courtney Riddle (27-2) arrived with a 0.94 earned run average and held teams to a collective .202 batting average in the postseason.
Under a bright sky and in 85-degree temperatures, Belleview, which didn’t start a senior, mashed 20 hits – seven starters had at least one hit – in 41 at-bats (.488 average) against Hernando County’s reigning Player of the Year.
There were several thorns as Riddle faced a career-high 47 batters permitting 15 earned runs against one walk and one strikeout. Riddle uncharacteristically hit four batters.
BHS junior third sacker Alex Suzuki finished 5-for-5, highlighted by two doubles, three runs batted in and four runs scored.
Sophomore catcher Kelly Bennett went 3-for-4 with two runs scored besides driving in six runs.
Slick fielding junior center fielder Alexis Day went 3-for-6 with two runs scored.
Sophomore second sacker Rachel Knowles finished 3-for-4 with four RBI while Aimee Oglesby went 3-for-5 with three runs scored and four RBI.
Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the first inning, the hosts missed a golden opportunity to jump out on soft-tossing freshman right-hander Jamie Adams (20-3).
Junior Danielle Harvey, who tied Megan Lane with two hits apiece, singled before Tana McDaniel walked and Riddle reached on an infield hit.
Adams extracted herself from any possible damage by fanning Summer Solovitch and Sierra Cannon.
In the second, the Purple and Gold, who had arrived winners of 20 of the past 21 games, tied the score.
Senior Nikki Patrick led off the frame with a walk – one of the game-high four free passes issued by Adams – before Lauren Moore sacrificed her to second. Two batters later, Lane smacked an RBI double to left, 1-1.
BHS broke the game open with six straight hits coming with two outs in the third, making it 6-1.
An inning later, the Lady Rattlers tacked on four more runs on Oglesby’s two-run double, an RBI double by Suzuki and an RBI single by Kaitlyn Bennett, 10-1.
The lead mushroomed to double digits in the fifth behind RBI singles by Suzuki and Kelly Bennett, 12-1.
The Lady Leopards plated three unearned runs in the bottom of the fifth as junior Erika Lewis scored on an error and Solovitch enticed a bases-loaded walk allowing Harvey to score. Cannon followed with an RBI single to plate McDaniel, 12-4.
In the top of the seventh, BHS paraded 10 batters to the plate, scoring six runs, though a Lady Leopard error permitted three unearned runs.
HHS seniors praised the Belleview hitting approach.
“Obviously this hurts a lot,” explained the 17-year-old Solovitch. “Belleview is a good hitting team and their outfielders were pretty good. Sure, I’m disappointed because we worked so hard to get here.”
“Give Belleview props, they hit the ball well,” pointed out the 18-year-old McDaniel. “They hit the entire game.
“Right now, this (stinks),” she added. “Knowing this was my last game with these girls is just sinking in.”
“It’s really sad right now,” insisted the soft-spoke Riddle. “It’s the last time I’ll be playing in a Hernando uniform on this field with this team and these coaches.”
According to Riddle, “Belleview had good bats. That third inning was big. Even when we cut it to 12-4, I still thought we could make this happen. This team has never given up. It was hard not to today.”
Though HHS dipped to 2-3 lifetime against Belleview, ninth-year Lady Leopard skipper Kevin Bittinger was no making any excuses, specifically the afternoon start time after the game was rained out Friday night.
“Playing at four o’clock in the afternoon isn’t the reason for what happened today,” he said. “I’m not here to make excuses. It was one of those games that at the end of the day we just didn’t have it.”
According to Bittinger, the third inning swung the momentum to BHS.
“We’ve got two out and then they bloop a couple balls – nothing was hit hard – and suddenly they score five runs,” explained Bittinger. “Courtney was making quality pitches to get their quality batters out. It was very frustrating.”
The key to the game wasn’t on defense. Hernando committed one error, converting 35-of-36 chances, while BHS committed a game-high four errors.
HHS’ Harvey sizzled at the hot corner with a game-high seven assists in seven chances.
“You credit them. They hit the ball hard,” noted Bittinger. “Still, I couldn’t be prouder of this team. To make it to back-to-back regional finals is a testament to this group of kids.”
On where the HHS program is headed, “It’ll be tough to replace this group of seniors, especially Tana and Courtney,” explained Bittinger. “Over 200 games, their numbers are ridiculous. Those two put everything into it. Those helped turn this thing around.
“And we wouldn’t have gotten here without another senior: Summer. Those three kids, wherever they go will make some coaches very, very proud,” insisted Bittinger. “On Senior Night those kids thanked the parents and everyone else for getting them this far. I have to thank them for all their efforts.”
Belleview 18, Hernando 4
123 456 7 R H E
BELL 105 420 6 – 18 20 4
HER 010 030 0 – 4 7 1
BELL – Adams and Kelly Bennett.
HER – Riddle and Lane.
W – Adams (20-3). L – Riddle (27-2).
2B – BELL: Suzuki (2), Kelly Bennett; HER: Lane.
Records – Belleview (25-5 overall), Hernando (27-3 overall).
Class 5A, Region II Tournament Recap
Belleview 11, Lecanto 0
at Ocala-Lake Weir
Crystal River 11, Lake Weir 7
at River Ridge
River Ridge 4, NCT 1
at Tom Varn Park
Hernando 3, Dunedin 1
at Crystal River
Belleview 15, Crystal River 0 (4 Innings)
at Tom Varn Park
Hernando 6, River Ridge 5
at Tom Varn Park
Belleview 18, Hernando 4