BROOKSVILLE – In the moments following Monday’s Class 5A, Region II final, after the rest of the team had broken away from the postgame huddle, Hernando head coach Kevin Bittinger shared a moment of reflection with Tana McDaniel and Courtney Riddle.
Following that brief private chat with their now former mentor, the two seniors embraced as they walked toward the dugout, their faces revealing a mixture of sadness and frustration expected following an 18-4 loss to Belleview at Tom Varn Park.
This wasn’t supposed to be the way it ended for these two, with a second straight double-digit defeat in the Elite Eight.
“Obviously you want the storybook ending, but guess what? This is the game of softball, and it’s real,” Bittinger said. “And sometimes you don’t get those, and sometimes the hard work doesn’t pay off short term.
“What you hope these girls get out of this is the big picture, the experience they got, and there are other kids, Ashley Sims and Summer Solovitch and Megan Lane, they turned the program around. I take very little credit for what happens out here because they’re the ones doing it. It takes nine of these girls functioning together and those are two huge, huge parts of what we do.”
What the Lady Leopards have done the past two seasons is win, going a combined 49-11 with a pair of district titles and two trips to the Elite Eight.
But McDaniel and Riddle have been producing for as long as they’ve donned the Purple and Gold.
McDaniel, a shortstop, played 107 varsity games over four seasons, never hitting lower than .328 as a freshman. She finished with a career .391 average, 37 doubles, eight triples, six home runs, 95 runs batted in and 101 runs scored.
Despite going 0-for-2 with two walks and a run against Belleview, she hit .440 with 12 doubles, a triple, two homers, 35 runs and 30 RBI this season.
During her four years playing at Hernando, Riddle posted a .410 career average, 36 doubles, four triples, four home runs and 119 RBI in 105 contests.
But it was on the mound where Riddle made the greatest impact, going a combined 67-22 with a 1.53 earned run average.
The reigning Hernando Today Player of the Year, Riddle compiled a 27-2 mark this season to go along with a 1.48 ERA, striking out 179 in 184 innings.
Offensively, she hit .485 with 14 doubles, two triples and three homers with 44 RBI.
Her prep career actually spanned six seasons. As a seventh- and eighth-grader she pitched Hernando Christian Academy into the 1A Final Four.
Both will move on the next level, McDaniel having signed with Division I Morehead State and Riddle with the College of Central Florida.
On Monday, though, they were hoping to keep their high school playing days going just a bit longer.
“It’s exciting to get this far but it’s very disappointing,” McDaniel said, before Riddle added, “That we were this close.”
Still, both players were able to recognize what they and their teammate have accomplished.
“I think we’ve come and made an impact. I hope somebody steps up and fills our shoes next year,” Riddle said. “It’s not just like a softball team, they treat us just like family; all the coaches do. It’s really just a great program.”
“I think we’ve progressively gotten better and kind of made our own spots on the team,” McDaniel said. “We came in here and the team wasn’t really that great, and it’s kind of turned around the four years that we’ve been here. It’s exciting to see the changes. I wish we would have went farther.
“It’s a fun group of people to play with. I’ve played with them since I started playing softball. So to go on to college and play with a whole new group of girls that I haven’t played with since I was 7 years old is going to be different.”
It will also be different for the Lady Leopards, losing their two cornerstones.
“They’re irreplaceable. You look at top to bottom what they bring to Hernando softball,” Bittinger said. “You know they’re special kids, but you look back at what they’ve accomplished here at Hernando High School, being key players for four straight years, both of them together, and just I told them, ‘I’ll take you two and two losses in the regional finals than a state championship any day of the week.’
“We all want to win, but the bottom line is we’re doing this to have an impact on kids’ lives, and those kids impacted my life. They’re great kids, and I’ve said it all year, I’ve said it from Day 1, they’re the embodiment, they’re what Hernando softball is.”