Why not us?
That’s the mantra Hernando has adopted this season, as an almost completely rebuilt Leopard squad seeks to build on the success of its predecessors.
When Hernando (23-4) hosts Sunlake (17-9) tonight at Emerson Field, in a Class 5A, Region II quarterfinal at 7 p.m., it will mark the fifth straight season the Leopards have participated in regional action. That’s a new county record.
A mark they already hold is four straight trips to the Elite Eight dating back to 2009 and today’s contest offers the next step toward making it five years in a row.
“Any team could come out of our region,” Hernando head coach Tim Sims said. “Whatever team gets hot will come out of our region.
“Right now we’re just concentrating on Sunlake. Sunlake’s top four hitters can do as much damage as anybody we’ve seen this year, and (head coach) Dick Rohrberg will push the right buttons for Sunlake, as well. They may come in as a runner-up in their district, but they’ve had an outstanding year.”
Sims spoke of the similarities between the two squads, as both possess strong pitching staffs.
With only one game this week – the winner will take on either Pasco or Land O’ Lakes in a semifinal on Tuesday – both teams will have the opportunity to send out their aces.
That means Sunlake will go with senior southpaw David Castillo, who has amassed a 6-3 record with a 1.78 earned run average and 71 strikeouts in 55 innings.
Hernando will counter with senior right-hander Kyle Kilbourne, though Sims left open the possibility he could change his mind after examining the matchups.
Kilbourne, who this week was named a recipient of a 2014 Bernie Varnadore National Scholarship from Dixie Boys Baseball, enters 9-1 with a 1.24 ERA, and has whiffed 62 batters in his 62 innings of work.
“I love it,” Kilbourne said following Friday’s district championship victory over Pasco. “I’ve never pitched playoff baseball before so I think it’s going to be sweet. I’m good friends with the coach over at Sunlake so I think it’ll be a good game, and I’m ready.”
Like all of his teammates, Kilbourne hasn’t been a regular on the varsity level prior to this season. That’s made this year all the more remarkable for the Leopards.
“For them to get into the playoffs; the pressure game was the Central (district semifinal) game, and we did play tight,” Sims said. “Now is gravy. We relaxed against Pasco (16-6 victory in the district final) and moved on pitch by pitch, half-inning by half-inning. I expect no less from them.”
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The visiting Seahawks haven’t faced the Leopards in three years, dating back to their time in the same district.
In their seventh season, this marks their finest showing, setting a new school record for wins and earning their first regional berth as 5A-District 8 runners-up.
They fell to Land O’ Lakes in the district title game last Thursday, 7-3.
Sunlake has compiled a 2.55 team ERA, led by Castillo as well as fellow senior Ryan Talburt (4-1, 2.30 ERA).
By comparison, Hernando has a sparkling 1.75 team ERA, but where the difference lies is the offense.
The Leopards have just a .267 combined batting average, while the Seahawks are hitting .319, paced by senior Omar Cala (.378) and Castillo (.368).
However, Hernando has 54 extra-base hits against 35 by Sunlake, and the Leopards have outscored the Seahawks playing one more game, 169-145.
Senior catcher Austin Treverton has been the offensive leader for Hernando most of the way, at .394 with 14 doubles, two home runs and 18 RBI.
Junior Justin Young, who hit a walk-off, three-run homer to invoke the mercy rule in the district final, is hitting .348 with four home runs and 30 RBI.
‘We had a good practice (Tuesday) and they’re excited to be in the dance so to speak,” Sims said. “They like to play baseball and they want to play some more.
“The team that throws the most strikes and handles the rock will win the game. These are two comparably matched teams. It should be a great pitching matchup.
“This group is passionate. They realize it’s, ‘Let’s go play and make the other team beat us, not beat ourselves. Why not us?’ And they’ve taken that approach.”
This game will be broadcast live on WWJB 1450 (AM), as well as 103.9 and 101.1 (FM), with the pregame show starting at 6:30 p.m.
At a Glance
What – Class 5A, Region II quarterfinal
Who – Sunlake Seahawks (17-9, 5A-8 runners-up) at Hernando Leopards (23-4, 5A-7 champions)
Where – Hernando’s Emerson Field
When – Today at 7 p.m.
At Stake – Winner advances to Tuesday’s semifinals against winner of Pasco/Land O’ Lakes quarterfinal.