BROOKSVILLE – River Ridge will not be participating in its third straight regional softball final after all.
Hernando High’s gutsy 6-5 triumph Tuesday night in a loud and packed Tom Varn Park eliminated the Class 5A, District 8 champion Royal Knights. The victory served as HHS’ seventh in a row and 20th across the last 21 tilts.
“I’ve aged too much in an hour and half,” declared HHS’ ninth-year skipper Kevin Bittinger, who improved 2-5 lifetime against RRHS. “What I most take away from tonight is there was a lot of resiliency and character.
“There were some people out here who thought our first win over Ridge Ridge this year was a fluke,” insisted Bittinger. “The final results speak for themselves. It’s not always a storybook ending.
“I can take all the mistakes and errors because of how many times we fought back,” added Bittinger. “I’m so impressed with this group of girls.”
On the win’s significance, “This is a program win,” replied Bittinger, who climbed to 148-90. “This didn’t start four years ago, it started when a bunch of our kids began playing many years ago at 7 and 8 years old and culminated tonight.”
The Lady Leopards arrived against River Ridge (26-4) junior right-hander Makenzie Goluba with a collective .170 batting average against her.
Goluba entered with a microscopic 0.98 earned run average with 17 strikeouts against two walks against the Lady Leopards.
This time, Goluba (23-4) permitted six runs (four earned) on three walks, one wild pitch and two hit batters against a game-high nine strikeouts.
Only Lady Leopard junior Sierra Cannon managed multiple hits going 2-for-3.
The New Port Richey crew, which arrived hitting a collective .387, outhit the host Purple and Gold, 10-6. But skipper Ernie Beck’s 20th team stranded a game-high 10 runners on base.
In the previous Leopard Slam III final 2-1 loss to HHS, RRHS left a game-high 11 runners on base.
The host and 5A-7 champion Lady Leopards (27-2) didn’t help their cause committing a game-high and season-high seven errors.
The Brooksville nine, however, dominated the base paths collecting six stolen bases on six attempts.
More importantly, the Purple and Gold remained resilient trading runs with perhaps Pasco County’s finest program over the past 20 years.
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Pasco County’s finest player, senior second sacker Morgan Tolle, put the visitors on top early smashing a two-run inside-the-park homer down the right-field line with one out in the first inning.
Tolle, who arrived hitting .613, hit her team-best eighth homer of the season to give RRHS an early 2-0 cushion off Hernando right-hander Courtney Riddle (27-1).
After Riddle struck out the side, HHS immediately answered with two runs.
Juniors Megan Lane and Danielle Harvey opened the inning getting hit by a pitch and reaching on a walk.
Senior Tana McDaniel grounded into a fielder’s choice, forcing Lane. Riddle followed with a gorgeous RBI bunt single plating Harvey.
An error and a double steal pulled off by courtesy runner Nikki Patrick and McDaniel tied the game, 2-2.
With two outs, Cannon drilled what appeared to be an RBI single to left.
Patrick appeared to avoid Knight catcher Brook Schwaner and touch home plate with her left hand before Schwaner came down from a high relay toss to the plate. However, home plate umpire Tom Parker ruled Patrick out – much to the disbelief of the host crowd.
RRHS regained the lead in the second inning.
With two outs, Schwaner’s seemingly routine fly ball to right-center fell within two feet of HHS right fielder Kaylee Frascatore and center fielder Erika Lewis. Both looked at each other as the ball harmlessly dropped to the turf.
Instead of a third out, No. 9 hitter Alyssa Lyons whacked an RBI single to center plating courtesy runner Paige Theede, 3-2 Knights.
In the third inning, the pendulum of momentum began to swing back toward the hosts.
After Tolle reached on an error, Goluba lined a shot at Riddle, who fired to first sacker Darrian Hunter to double up Tolle on the game’s lone twin killing.
In the bottom of the frame, HHS retook the lead.
Lane, who came in hitting a county-best .564, singled to right and immediately swiped her 62nd base of the season.
With one out, McDaniel lined a shot to right-center to plate Lane for her 95th career RBI, tying Chrissy Hartley for second-place all-time. Riddle holds the RBI school record (118).
The run scored was Lane’s 113th all-time, tying the school record held by Hartley.
After Riddle grounded out, McDaniel scored on a Goluba wild pitch, 4-3 Lady Leopards.
McDaniel’s second run scored of the game was her 100th of her career. Only Lane and Hartley have ever scored more in 25 years at HHS.
The hosts did not handle prosperity well committing three errors in the fourth to plate two more unearned Knight runs by Anessa Holes and Schwaner, allowing River Ridge to retake the lead, 5-4.
In the fifth, Cannon produced a defensive gem. With one out, Kyle Randolph rapped a sharp single off the base of the left-field wall. But after getting a good break on the ball, Cannon fired a seed back Solovitch, who tagged out a stunned Randolph at second.
In the bottom of the fifth, Solovitch again came through in the clutch with a two-out RBI single to right to plate Harvey. Solovitch, who was 0-for-7 against Goluba this season, tied the game with her personal-best tying 28th RBI.
“I don’t know why I made errors,” analyzed the 17-year-old Solovitch. “I know we weren’t doing what we’ve done all season. What I take away from this game is we’ve got a lot of fight in this group. We never gave up.”
Despite Hernando playing fast and loose with the ball, in the bottom of the sixth the tables turned.
Slick-fielding RRHS junior shortstop Kenzi Maguire’s two-out throwing error – the team’s second – permitted Cannon to score from second base with what turned out to be the winning run.
“Even though we made some mistakes, we learned that if we push together, we can do anything,” said the 17-year-old Cannon. “There was no panic tonight, I was nervous. But I thought we could come back.”
The New Port Richey club, which had split the other regular-season meeting with HHS, went down swinging. The Royal Knights loaded the sacks in the top of the seventh.
HHS shortstop McDaniel forced out two runners at the plate with pegs to Lane at the plate before Riddle enticed Lyons to ground to second sacker Solovitch for the final out.
Riddle, who arrived with a 0.88 ERA against RRHS, permitted five runs (two earned), plus a wild pitch, against four strikeouts and zero walks.
“Tonight, our guys had to make plays like we have all year,” described the 18-year-old Riddle. “Megan Lane really helped Tana with those last two throws. I’ll admit it was pretty nerve-wracking pitching in a game like this.”
On the win, “It’s really big,” she replied. “It gets us one step closer to where we want to be.”
Riddle’s school-record 70th career complete game and county-record 89th permitted Hernando to advance to the 5A-II final on Friday against Belleview.
Belleview (26-3) advanced by crushing host Crystal River (14-14), 15-0 in a mercy-rule shortened three-inning game.
The Lady Leopards will try to rebound from last year’s regional final loss to St. Johns-Creekside.
On facing Belleview, “It’s a regional final,” emphasized Bittinger. “We better be ready to play because we know Belleview will be. Belleview was a state runner-up two years ago. Everybody here remembers what happened here last year.”
Hernando 6, River Ridge 5
123 456 7 R H E
RR 210 200 0 – 5 10 2
HER 202 011 x – 6 6 7
RR – Goluba and Schwaner.
HER – Riddle and Lane.
W – Riddle (27-1). L – Goluba (23-4).
HR – Tolle (RR).
Records – River Ridge (26-4 overall), Hernando (27-2 overall).