The wait has been particularly excruciating for the Lady Leopards.
Almost a year ago to the day, May 3, 2013, Hernando High’s dreams of attaining a berth in the coveted Class 5A Final Four were dashed by senior-laden St. Johns-Creekside in a regional final, 10-0.
In a bit of déjà vu, the co-Hernando County and 5A-District 7 champion Lady Leopards (27-2) will again host the 5A-Region II final, tonight at 7 p.m. against 5A-5 runner-up Belleview (24-5) at Brooksville’s Tom Varn Park.
The fifth-ever meeting between the two programs will be carried live on radio across WWJB (AM) 1450, and 103.9 and 101.1 (FM). The pregame show is set for 6:25 p.m.
The stakes are enormous. The Region II champion will clash May 9 with the Region III champion in the state semifinals in Vero Beach at a time yet to be determined.
Region III is expected to be decided Friday between the 5A-11 champion Wauchula-Hardee County Wildcats (18-6-1) and the 5A-10 champion Bradenton-Bayshore Bruins (22-4).
❖ ❖ ❖
Don’t think for a minute that the district runner-up Marion County nine are slouches; quite the contrary.
This Belleview program is two seasons removed from playing for the 5A state championship.
This current BHS edition would love nothing better than to spoil the Lady Leopards’ planned homecoming for its softball alumni, who will be celebrating the team’s 25th anniversary of fast-pitch play prior to Friday night’s first pitch.
At press time, as many as six members of the original 1990 HHS varsity squad under Mike Majeske will be saluted featuring: Laura Branson, Jill Penderghest, Liz Krasemann, Karen Kelly, Dena Frye (Bridges) and Heather Garman.
In a win-or-go-home situation, HHS will start 3-4 seniors while BHS counters with an entire underclassman squad.
Many of the 15 members of this young and athletic Lady Rattler club also played volleyball for mentor Gary Greer. BHS lost in the 5A state finals to long-time area nemesis Orlando-Bishop Moore Catholic.
BHS has not faced HHS since last season’s Doc-4-Life Tournament at Belleview where the Lady Rattlers won, 7-3.
In a series dating back to 1997, the teams are tied 2-all.
Offensively, BHS’ current stats would make the 1927 New York Yankees blush.
The Lady Rattlers arrive hitting a collective .426, or 39 points higher than stout River Ridge – a team the Lady Leopards solved twice (2-1, 6-5), but the same nine that crushed BHS at this year’s Leopard Slam III, 10-2.
The Marion County nine is averaging over nine runs and over 12 hits per game.
The main mashers include junior center fielder Alexis Day hitting a team-best .514 behind a team-high 53 runs scored, 57 hits and 22 extra-base hits highlighted by eight doubles, nine triples and seven homers (three were inside-the-park dingers).
Sophomore pitcher-turned-second baseman Rachel Knowles (.452, 37 runs, 42 hits, 21 RBI); junior infielder Alex Suzuki (.418, 28 runs, 41 hits, team-best 39 RBI and team-high 14 doubles), and junior shortstop Aimee Oglesby (.489, 31 runs, 43 hits, 34 RBI, and 14 doubles) have also made major contributions.
Additionally, the Lady Rattlers are one of the few teams that have stolen more bases (155) than HHS (134). Day leads the club with 37 steals in 37 attempts while Olgesby has converted all 27 attempts.
Defensively, BHS has committed only 31 errors in 29 games, or just over one miscue per game.
In the circle, frosh Jamie Adams began the season splitting time with Knowles. Down the stretch Adams (19-3) has emerged as the staff ace completing 10 of her 21 starts.
Across 123.1 innings pitched, Adams has surrendered 104 hits. Known for her movement rather than her speed, Adams has fanned 61 batters, but has issued 45 walks.
According to Coach Greer, “Adams is known for changing speeds and location,” he said. “She’s very calm out there. In the past whenever she’s been in a tight spot we asked her to just look around and allow her defense to make plays.
“When I was looking at this game, we both take advantage of runners at first and third,” described Greer on both teams’ emphasis on speeding up the game. “As far as pure speed, you’re probably not going to find anyone faster than Alexis Day, but it looks to me that we’re in for a handful with Hernando’s base runners.”
On preparing for Hernando, “We were at the Hernando (Leopard Slam) tournament and they’re a very well-coached team. Coach (Kevin) Bittinger is real good at what he does,” explained Greer, who arrives with a stellar 283-111 career won-lost record (72 percent) with three district titles, five district runner-up trophies and one regional crown. “His girls are well-disciplined. I know he’s brought that team to a great spot.”
On the keys to victory, “A good start is two-fold for us,” insisted Greer. “Whether we score early just to have an offensive presence early is important. Also on the defensive side we have to make sure that our pitching limits walks to them and keeps their runners off base and makes them earn their bases.”
❖ ❖ ❖
From the home side, the Purple and Gold are attempting to earn the school’s third-ever Final Four appearance – and first since 2001 in Auburndale.
Despite HHS’ 12 errors during its 4-0 playoff run, the Lady Leopards’ skipper Bittinger steadfastly believes in team’s backbone – character – is the key.
“We’ve made some adjustments; hopefully, the product will be better,” explained Bittinger, who arrives 148-90 lifetime, including a 1-1 mark against BHS. “If you would have asked me before the River Ridge game that we’d make seven errors, if would we have won, I would have said definitely not. We come back to the character of the team, they can overcome a lot. They’re tougher than a lot of people give them credit for.”
On facing the Lady Rattlers, “They’re a team that plays to their strengths. They’re fast and they put the ball in play. They don’t strike out a lot. They definitely look to try and outscore you. Our defense has to play good,” stressed Bittinger. “Their pitcher (Adams) does a good job of staying within herself.”
On the keys to the game, “Megan (Lane) has had a terrific career and is having a tremendous season. She’s thrown out nearly 41 percent of anyone attempting to steal,” noted Bittinger addressing BHS’ speedsters. “If anyone attempts to steal, she takes its real personal. She’s ready for the challenge.
“Courtney (Riddle) and her defense have to play well,” added Bittinger. “Plus, are we able to steal bases in key situations and are we able to prevent them from stealing? That will either speed an offense up or slow it down.
“And we’ve said since Day 1, we need to score with two outs and we need to close out innings.”
River Ridge’s 20th-year skipper Ernie Beck, who said he coached his last game Tuesday night, has faced both the Lady Rattlers and Lady Leopards this season and gives the edge Friday night to hosts.
“Hernando’s a better club,” insisted Beck, who closed out his prep career at 426-129 (77 percent). “But if you don’t play your best it’s hard to judge who’s better.
“On Tuesday, I thought we outhit them (Hernando) and outplayed them, but they won the scoreboard and that’s all that matters,” lamented Beck.
“We had plenty of chances. Their shortstop (Tana McDaniel) had a rough game, but with the game on the line (facing the bases loaded and no outs), she made two great plays. We hit the crap out of the ball, but came up empty. This is a tough sport; you never know who can win on any given night.”
At a Glance
What – Class 5A, Region II Softball Final.
Who – Belleview Diamondback Rattlers (24-5, 5A-5 runners-up) vs. Hernando Lady Leopards (27-2, 5A-7 champions).
Where – Tom Varn Park
When – Tonight at 7 p.m.
At Stake – Winner advances to the state semifinals May 9 against the Region III champion, the winner between Wauchula-Hardee County and Bradenton-Bayshore.
On the Air – The game will be carried live on radio across WWJB (AM) 1450, and 103.9 and 101.1 (FM). The pregame show is set for 6:25 p.m.
By the numbers: Belleview vs. Hernando
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
No. of regional appearances 8 13
No. of sectional/regional championships 1 2
No. of state appearances 1 2
No. of state championships 0 0
Regional/state W-L Record 9-7 13-12