The demise of Nature Coast Technical – the Lady Sharks were eliminated Thursday at River Ridge, 4-1 – leaves one local team remaining in the quest for Hernando County’s first-ever fast-pitch softball state champion in 25 seasons: Hernando High.
The Lady Leopards (26-2) will host their mirror images from River Ridge (26-3) at 7 p.m. Tuesday during the win-or-go-home Class 5A, Region II semifinals at Tom Varn Park, in what many fans believe could have been an excellent regional final or state-tourney clash.
With an HHS victory over their nemesis the Royal Knights, the Brooksville nine would face the survivor of Belleview (23-5) at Crystal River (14-13) on Friday night.
Tuesday’s third meeting this season between the Knights and Lady Leopards will be carried live on radio across WWJB (AM) 1450 and 103.9 and 101.1 (FM). The pregame show is set for 6:30 p.m.
Additionally, should the Purple and Gold win and the Marion County-based Diamondback Rattlers oust the Lady Pirates, the Lady Leopards would host the regional final – the same spot they were in last season.
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Dating back to their first clash in 1997, Tuesday marks the 12th lifetime meeting between both schools. The Royal Knights hold a commanding 8-3 edge.
Only one previous meeting was during the state series as the West Pasco County club narrowly edged the Bell Avenue nine during the Class 4A, District 8 Tourney at Tom Varn Park on March 8, 2011, 1-0.
RRHS head coach Ernie Beck arrives with a splendid 426-128 (.769) lifetime mark, featuring seven district titles and eight district runner-up trophies.
Beck, in his 20th season at the helm, enters 8-3 lifetime against HHS and is seeking his program’s fourth regional title.
Similar to HHS, the Royal Knights have never captured a state title.
Tuesday marks the rubber match meeting between the two teams this season.
HHS, which hadn’t solved RRHS since 2001’s mercy-rule shortened 12-0 win during the Ridgewood Classic, snapped a five-game series losing streak behind a pulsating 2-1 win in the bottom of the eighth inning of the March 22 Leopard Slam III final.
On April 8 at the Jim Valentine Sports Complex in New Port Richey, RRHS throttled HHS, 8-1.
The main caveat was HHS held out senior right-hander and Hernando Today’s defending Player of the Year, Courtney Riddle.
Instead, the Lady Leopards’ ninth-year skipper opted for sophomore Lauren Moore (0-1). In her only varsity start this season, she fell prey to the potent Royal Knights’ offense.
RRHS arrives averaging over nine runs and 10.5 hits per game, behind a collective .387 batting average.
The Royal Knights are led by the outstanding 1-2 punch of senior Morgan Tolle and junior Kenzi Maguire.
That tandem has combined for 100 hits and 88 runs batted in while smacking 14 of the Knights’ 18 homers.
Inside the circle, RRHS junior right-hander Makenzie Goluba (23-3) has amassed 162 strikeouts against 30 walks in 158.2 innings pitched. She’s totaled 14 of her team’s 17 shutouts.
Defensively, RRHS has committed 40 errors or only 1.38 miscues per game to reach the regional semifinals.
By comparison, HHS’ defense has committed 37 errors, or a stellar 1.32 miscues per game.
On the rubber, HHS’ Riddle has completed 23 of her 27 starts – including the thriller over the Knights.
Riddle (26-1) has fanned 174 batters in 170 innings pitched against 38 free passes.
Offensively, HHS arrives carrying a collective .360 team batting average averaging almost eight runs and almost 10 hits per game.
Junior catcher Megan Lane enters hitting a county-best .564 followed by Riddle (.500, county-best 43 RBI) and senior shortstop Tana McDaniel (.456, 29 RBI).
It was McDaniel’s booming gapper to left-center plating Erika Lewis for the game-winner off Goluba in the Leopard Slam.
“Everything starts in the circle,” explained Bittinger, who is 1-5 lifetime against the Royal Knights. “Goluba throws hard, but keeps the ball low setting up a ton of groundballs.
“Offensively, McGuire and Tolle are absolutely solid hitters and the Knights play to their strengths,” added Bittinger. “Hitting-wise they’re as legitimate as they come in the state of Florida.”
In what Bittinger believes will be the keys to the game, “Our defense has been nothing short of the stellar; it’s the best I’ve had since I’ve been here,” he said. “We have to play flawless. We also can’t afford to walk batters. If they outhit us and win so be it, we don’t want to give them anything extra.
“We have to play our game, be smart on the base paths, play our defense and attack the strike zone like we have all year,” insisted Bittinger. “This is the game we all saw coming. With 100-percent certainty, whoever executes the best will win Tuesday. The best team will be moving on.”
At a Glance
What – Class 5A, Region II Girls Softball Semifinal.
Who – River Ridge Royal Knights (26-3, 5A-8 champions) vs. Hernando Lady Leopards (26-2, 5A-7 champions).
Where – Tom Varn Park
When – Tuesday at 7 p.m.
At Stake – Winner advances to the 5A-II Final set for Friday against the survivor of Belleview at Crystal River.
By the numbers: River Ridge vs. Hernando
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
No. of regional appearances 16 13
No. of sectional/regional championships 3 2
No. of state appearances 3 2
No. of state championships 0 0
Regional/state W-L Record 15-15 12-12