BROOKSVILLE - Tuesday night's pregame chatter at Tom Varn Park centered on veteran Hernando High girls softball skipper Kevin Bittinger defending his team's "rough start."
Though the Class 5A, District 7 defending champion Lady Leopards arrived 5-0 basking in a collective .477 team batting average and scoring an average of 11.4 runs per game, Bittinger admitted with a straight face, "We haven't hit the ball like we're capable of; we can play much better."
On the flip side, defending 6A-6 champ Lecanto had pushed back the start of its season awaiting the return of two key starters - Bree and Jordan Martin - from FHSAA suspension.
LHS had throttled Central's freshman right-hander Skylar Heyward last Thursday, 11-0.
And didn't the Lady Panthers have momentum on their side?
In the last meeting against Hernando on April 13, 2012 (a Friday the 13th), stud catcher Amber Atkinson deposited a one-out, two-run, walk-off home run over the right-center field fence off sophomore right-hander Courtney Riddle at LHS, for a 5-3 win.
Though the two teams failed to meet last season, Riddle gained a measure of revenge on Tuesday.
Hernando Today's 2013 Player of the Year hurled a five-inning, complete-game, 1-hit shutout over the Lady Panthers, 10-0.
In a game halted by the 10-run mercy-rule after 4½ innings, Riddle faced 17 batters while improving to 6-0 by permitting one hit batsman and two walks sandwiched around seven strikeouts.
"This was Game 2 for us," declared LHS mentor Robert Dupler, who opened his ninth season last week behind his 100th career victory. "A lot of other teams have played five and six games. What better way to learn than to get our butts kicked by a great team?
"Like I've said before, we've got 25 practice games before districts," said Dupler, who dropped to 2-10 lifetime against HHS. "Hopefully, we'll be better by the next time we play them (on April 1 in Citrus County). To me, this was the strongest team in our region."
HHS climbed to 6-0 overall - extending its school-record shutout streak to open the season at six games in a row - covering 31 straight scoreless innings. Riddle has hurled five complete-game victories during the streak.
The former school record for most shutouts in a row was four - set by the 2005, 2001, 2000, and 1999 Purple and Gold teams.
The 30-4 2001 squad under Ernie Chatman pieced together seven shutouts in eight games, including 14 overall.
Offensively, HHS rapped a game-high 12 hits - the majority of which were infield safeties - against an unsteady Lady Panther defense which committed a game-high four errors.
The Lady Leopards were led by juniors Megan Lane and Sierra Cannon, and seniors Tana McDaniel and Summer Solovitch - who each cracked two safeties.
The 2013 All-County pick Solovitch plated a game-high three runs while Cannon and junior Darrian Hunter each knocked home two runs.
"Courtney struggled a little a bit, but pitchers don't always have their best stuff when they're out there," acknowledged Bittinger, who increased his lifetime mark to 127-88. "The key was she stuck to the plan."
Though HHS batted 12-for-26 (.462) against LHS pitching, Bittinger was more impressed with his team's tenacity.
"It wasn't like we sprayed line drives all over the park," he said. "But nobody struck out and we put the ball in play. The girls got more selective at the plate and normally when you put the ball in play - you're going to get rewarded."
On the current win skein, "This is a great group of kids. Hernando is the most important thing to this team," he remarked. "We weren't real sharp tonight, but this team was ready to compete. Don't worry about Lecanto - that's a good team. Trust me, they'll find their way."
Against soft-tossing LHS right-hander Danielle Yant, HHS pounced quickly for three first-inning runs capped by a run batted in off a single by Solovitch and a clutch two-out, two-run double to the left-center field fence by Cannon.
McDaniel's sacrifice fly to center plated Lane in the second inning, 4-0.
Yant (0-1) departed after allowing four earned runs and seven hits. Freshman southpaw Maddie Kofman didn't fare much better across the last two frames.
In a three-run third, Solovitch scored on a wild pitch, 5-0. She had reached on an error, and advanced to third on another error,
Hunter singled to left to drive in one run while Lane's looping single behind first base plated frosh Kaylee Frascatore, 7-0.
HHS concluded its scoring thanks to two more Lady Panther errors and Hunter's RBI groundout in the fourth.
LHS' lone hit was a fluke. Speedy senior Paige Richards, the game's second batter, pulled a grounder to the right of third sacker Danielle Harvey. Harvey had been playing up, attempting to cut down the possibility of a bunt.
Though the ball never got past the third base bag in fair territory, the home plate umpire called it a fair ball - spoiling Riddle's attempt at a second no-hitter this season. On Feb. 18, she hurled a three-inning perfect game against Wesley Chapel, 15-0.
Riddle handcuffed the normally-potent Lady Panther bats to a 1-for-14 evening (.071).
Defensively, HHS converted 21-of-21 chances.
Lane, known for her rifle arm behind the plate, threw out two runners: Richards attempting to steal third in the first inning and Yant attempting to steal second in the fourth.
Though the 18-year-old McDaniel entered the game hitting .545 and finished 2-for-2, she said, "I know this wasn't my best game, but we hustled it out. We mercy-ruled a defending district champion, that doesn't happen very often."
The 16-year-old Lane, who entered the game with a blistering .778 batting average, cooled off slightly behind a 2-for-4 effort.
"The biggest positive was we haven't given up a run so far this year," she said.
"A lot of us remembered what happened the last time we played them (Lecanto)," she added. "We heard they beat Central, 11-0, so we had to come and play. I think we're a lot better team than we were two years ago."
Cannon came in hitting .600 - a galaxy from last year's .227 average.
"I'm seeing the ball so much better this year and I'm really staying on the ball better. On that (first-inning) double, I've been dipping my hips more - that's what I've really been working on," said the 17-year-old Cannon. "Like everybody else, I remember that walk-off homer at Lecanto; a lot of us did. We came back a little stronger this time."
Hernando 10, Lecanto 0 (4.5 Innings)
123 45 R H E
LEC 000 00 - 0 1 4
HER 313 30x - 10 12 0
LEC - Yant, Kofman (3) and Hopkins.
HER - Riddle and Lane.
W - Riddle (6-0). L - Yant (0-1).
2B - HER: Cannon.
Records - Lecanto (1-1), Hernando (6-0).