ZEPHYRHILLS - A fired-up home crowd at Bulldog Stadium excitedly looked ahead to next week's "9-Mile War" against Pasco, now essentially a postseason play-in game.
Meanwhile Hernando quietly prepared for the bus ride back to Brooksville, leaving behind its goal of a fourth straight playoff appearance.
Just as it appeared the Leopards were going to pull off a stirring comeback Friday night, host Zephyrhills pulled away for a 32-14 victory.
With that, the Class 5A, District 6 playoff picture gained considerable clarity. The winner between the Bulldogs and Pirates takes the runner-up spot.
"This is a very tough loss. We were coming back, we were knocking on the doorstep, then it's just the little things," Hernando head coach Dwayne Mobley said. "We've got to start taking care of the little things."
The Leopards (2-6 overall, 2-3 5A-6) had to win their remaining two district contests, and hope Zephyrhills (7-1 overall, 4-1 5A-6) knocked off Pasco, to earn a playoff berth.
That possibility had all but disappeared by halftime - or so it seemed.
Though Hernando's defense had limited the Bulldogs to one first down through their first three drives, Zephyrhills took advantage of a special teams' gaffe.
After being forced to punt from the Hernando 41, the Bulldogs pounced on the ball when it grazed a member of the Leopard coverage unit.
Given new life on the 12-yard line, Zephyrhills gained only two yards across three plays yet still cashed in via a 27-yard field by Zach Gleaton.
Following the Leopards' third consecutive three-and-out, in just two plays from scrimmage the Bulldogs found the end zone. Justin Swanstrom hit Devon Brockington down the left sideline from 37 yards out with 16.7 second to go in the first quarter.
In a role reversal of sorts, Swanstrom hauled in a 12-yard touchdown toss from Ty Tanner, with whom he shared the quarterbacking duties, at the 1:59 mark of the second.
Staked to a 17-0 halftime lead, the Bulldogs were in complete command. Then attrition forced Hernando into a game-changing personnel maneuver.
Ra'shaad Hart, still shaking off the ankle sprain that kept him out of all but one series the past two weeks, was forced into extended action at quarterback when Tyler Kline and John Coleman each went down with injuries.
An 8-yard scoring scamper by Hart, who Mobley estimated was at 85 percent, on a bootleg up the middle got the Leopards on the board with 5:35 to go in the third.
On the ensuing possession, just as the defense appeared to have him corralled on an option play, Hart managed to pitch the ball to Jeremiah Jackson. With nothing but open field in front of him, Jackson motored 55 yards for a stunning touchdown.
Suddenly Hernando found itself within three, 17-14, as 3:15 remained in the quarter.
"Tall kid, he throws the ball up the field and he can run," Zephyrhills head coach Reginald Roberts said of Hart. "We saw the guy going down (on the second touchdown) so we go attack that, we give up our responsibility. That shouldn't have even been a touchdown. They scored on our mistakes tonight.
"Our strength was to stop the run, so they tried to attack the edges."
Early in the fourth Hart was sacked in the end zone by Riley Murphy for a safety. However, his 69-yard run up the middle off a fake handoff gave the Leopards the ball at the Zephyrhills 7.
A fumbled snap resulted in a six-yard loss on first down, and Hernando stalled out, turning the ball over on downs with 5:18 left to play.
Jaylen Pickett followed with touchdown runs of 2 and 13 yards to put the game out of reach.
Hart wound up rushing for 93 yards on eight carries, and Jackson totaled 94 yards on 11 runs.
The Leopards played without placekicker Habib Garcia. According to Mobley, an undisclosed issue developed during the school day and left him unavailable.
That may have proved costly. Hunter Maclachlan, though perfect on two PATs, missed a pair of 40-yard field goals in the first half that loomed large later on.
"It was very big because you're looking at where you've got a guy, you're used to him," Mobley said. "Not that our other kicker is not good, but we're used to this guy, and then all of sudden 'Bam,' this other guy hasn't had a chance to practice or anything, he basically came in there cold."
Hernando still has two games left, against county opponents Central and Springstead.
"We can still win the county championship," Mobley said. "We've beaten everybody in the county so far. We've got to buckle it up and keep playing."
Zephyrhills 32, Hernando 14
ZEP - Gleaton 27 field goal
ZEP - Brockington 37 pass from Swanstrom (Gleaton kick)
ZEP - Swanstrom 12 pass from Tanner (Gleaton kick)
HER - Hart 8 run (H. Maclachlan kick)
HER - Jackson 55 run (H. Maclachlan kick)
ZEP - Pickett 2 run (Gleaton kick blocked)
ZEP - Pickett 13 run (Gleaton kick)
Atts./Rushing Yds. 40-245 30-125
Comps./Pass/Atts/Int. 6-20-0 12-23-0
Total Offense 60-317 53-260