BROOKSVILLE – For the second straight playoff tilt, Hernando faltered down the stretch, but was able to maintain its composure.
After converting a sparkling 34-of-35 defensive chances last Thursday against Nature Coast Technical, the typically air-tight Lady Leopard defense struggled late Thursday during the Class 5A, Region II softball quarterfinal against Dunedin, committing a game-high three errors.
Dunedin took advantage on an error and two singles to spoil right-hander Courtney Riddle’s shutout bid in the sixth.
Then with two outs in the seventh, Riddle plunked pinch hitter Alex Veloudos, who arrived with a .000 batting average, before Ansley Flanagan reached on a dropped groundball to first base.
Fortunately, Riddle enticed the leadoff batter, junior Olivia Silver, to groundout to first sacker Darrian Hunter to close out a 3-1 Hernando win.
With the Leopards’ sixth straight win and 19th over its past 20 games. The 5A-7 champion Purple and Gold (26-2) will host the 5A-8 champion River Ridge Royal Knights (26-3) Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Tom Varn Park.
RRHS rallied to eliminate Nature Coast Technical (22-5) in West Pasco County, 4-1.
The first meeting with Dunedin (17-7) since 1999 tilted on a third-inning Lady Leopard rally.
Locked in scoreless deadlock with two outs, Hernando tallied three runs on four straight hits.
The team’s junior center fielder Erika Lewis, who arrived hitting .308, got the rally ignited with a single.
Junior catcher Megan Lane, who arrived hitting a county-best .571, followed by looping a single to right-center.
Junior third sacker Danielle Harvey, hitting .286, was the only player with multiple hits against junior right-hander Aubrey Elhers (16-6).
Harvey, who reached on an infield single in the first inning, laced an RBI single to right plating Lewis.
Senior shortstop Tana McDaniel crushed the next Elhers’ offering to the right-center field wall, scoring Lane and Harvey, 3-0.
The two RBI were McDaniel’s 93rd and 94th of her career. Only Chrissy Hartley (95) and Riddle (117) have more career RBI than the Division I Morehead State University signee.
The Lady Falcons stranded runners at third base in the first and second frames before Riddle (26-1) sailed through the middle innings retiring 14 straight batters.
With two outs in the sixth, frosh Taylor Scott singled up the middle – the Lady Falcons’ first hit since Silver led off the game reaching on an infield single.
Catcher Abbie Sexton then grounded to second sacker Summer Solovitch. Solovitch, who was perfect on her first five chances, was charged with a bobble.
Senior shortstop Tiona Hill followed with a looping single to right to plate Scott with the unearned run.
Riddle extracted herself from the two-on, two-out jam in the seventh inning for her 23rd complete game of the season and her 88th in six seasons of play.
The postgame discussion centered around the key three-run HHS outburst and the near inability to close out the game.
“I’ll say it again, people forget that these are high school kids, not pros,” admitted ninth-year Lady Leopard skipper Kevin Bittinger. “They got caught in cruise control. You have to have the mentality that you’ll play hard from the first pitch to the last.
“We embrace speeding up the game – that’s what we do,” he said. “For almost six innings we executed very well.”
Rewinding the key third inning rally, “It all started with our No. 9 hitter, Erika Lewis, getting the big hit to turn the lineup over,” recalled Bittinger. “Suddenly we string four hits in the blink of an eye.
“Give their pitcher credit, she had an outstanding change-up, but we adjusted, especially in that third inning,” said Bittinger.
On what Bittinger took away from Thursday’s win, “When we execute, we can be amazing. That’s been our story the entire season,” he said. “When we don’t anything can happen.”
On facing River Ridge Tuesday in the rubber game between both programs this season, “River Ridge is a good ball club,” noted Bittinger. “We’ve got to get ready. We know they’ll be ready for us.”
From the home dugout, Harvey praised Riddle.
“Courtney pitched really well,” explained the 17-year-old Harvey. “Nobody really got a solid hit against her. Our defense played well until the end of the game.
“I think in the last couple of games we’ve gotten within one out of ending it and we’ve gotten a little too excited,” she remarked. “We’ve got to calm our nerves or that will eventually hurt us.”
On what Harvey was looking for prior to her clutch RBI single, “I was looking for a nice first-pitch strike. I had told myself that’s what I was going for,” she said.
On McDaniel’s game-winning hit, “It was a real nice hit,” described Harvey. “On contact, Coach (Bittinger) was sending me, so I didn’t really get to see it.”
McDaniel pointed out, “I was looking for something hard and outside. On the swing, it felt good,” said the 18-year-old.
The four-year Lady Leopard starter at shortstop said of next Tuesday’s regional semifinal, “The last couple of games we’ve gotten a little ahead of ourselves and lost a little focus. It doesn’t matter who we play next; we’ll be ready.”
Hernando 3, Dunedin 1
123 456 7 R H E
DUN 000 001 0 –1 3 0
HER 003 000 0 – 3 6 3
DUN – Elhers and Sexton.
HER – Riddle and Lane.
W – Riddle (26-1). L – Elhers (16-6).
2B – McDaniel (HER).
Records – Dunedin (17-7), Hernando (26-2).
04-24: 5A-II Quarterfinals
at River Ridge
New Port Richey-River Ridge 4, Brooksville-Nature Coast Technical 1
at Tom Varn Park
Hernando 3, Dunedin 1
04-29: 5A-II Semifinal
at Tom Varn Park
River Ridge vs. Hernando, 7 p.m.