ZEPHYRHILLS – A year ago, Justin Young managed one pinch-hit appearance in the Class 5A, District 7 championship game.
Like so many of this current teammates, the junior mostly watched as a senior-laden Leopard squad earned a district crown and made another run to the Elite Eight.
This time around, he played a much larger role in the 5A-7 finale, against Pasco at Zephyrhills Friday night.
Young went 2-for-2, walked twice, scored twice, had a triple and drove in six runs, the last three on a home run to center field that invoked the mercy rule in the bottom of the sixth inning, sealing a 16-6 victory.
“My first two strikes I was going to try to do that, until I got down to my last one,” said Young, who also earned the win in relief. “And I called it. I told my dad when I was walking up; I said I was going to hit a walk-off home run. He said, ‘Go ahead.’
“Obviously it shuts a lot of people up. It shows we really can do it and that we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
This marked the fourth district title in five years for the Leopards (23-4), but this one seemed a bit more remarkable considering eight starters were lost to graduation a year ago.
“It’s kind of surreal; it is. And I’m not that way,” Hernando head coach Tim Sims said. “But this group of seniors, they sat behind an outstanding group last year.
“It feels good. They did their work. They play baseball. They love to play baseball, and that’s obvious tonight. They love to compete, and they realize they can compete.”
The Leopards will host 5A-8 runner-up Sunlake in a 5A-Region II quarterfinal on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Despite the lopsided final score, third-seeded Pasco (16-10) certainly made things interesting against top-seeded Hernando.
It didn’t feel that way out of the gate. The Pirates, playing their third game in four days, were further limited by the loss of two key players, Malik Johns and Turner Imhoff, ruled ineligible for undisclosed reasons.
Forced to send freshman Corey Mills to the mound, the Pirates had a difficult time keeping the normally light-hitting Leopards off the scoreboard.
Tanner Bammert led off the bottom of the first with a double and scored on Kyle Kilbourne’s single up the middle. Brad Ellis followed by driving in a run while hitting into a force out at second.
Phillip Wilson got one back for Pasco on a line-drive home run down the left-field line in the second, but Hernando send 10 batters to the plate and scored six times in the bottom half.
Bammert’s RBI single and Young’s sacrifice fly preceded Kilbourne drilling a two-run homer to left and Tyler Allen’s run-scoring double, and the Leopards had opened up an 8-1 advantage.
Still, the Pirates managed to score in every inning the rest of the way, even bringing the go-ahead run to the plate in the fifth when they cut the deficit to 8-5.
A two-out, two-run triple by Young in the bottom of the fifth provided a bit more breathing room, though Wilson’s bases-loaded walk in the sixth allowed the tying run to twice come up for Pasco. The Pirates stranded 11 runners overall.
Holding a 10-6 edge, Hernando received another RBI double by Allen, then scored a run apiece on singles by Brendan Litwinsky and Tyler Skipper before the lefty Young sent everyone home with a deep drive just right of dead center.
“It was high and right down the middle,” Young said. “I just let it get deep. It was a little knuckleball that didn’t really move that much. So I just let it get deep, put a short swing on it.”
Bammert finished 2-for-3, with two walks, a double, two runs scored and an RBI. Allen went 2-for-4, with his two doubles for two runs driven in, and scored once.
Kilbourne, the staff ace who tossed a complete game in Wednesday’s semifinal win over Central, was 3-for-4 including the homer, knocking in three runs.
“I don’t think that anybody expected this out of us and this group just grinded every day and we did everything we could to get it,” Kilbourne said. “So we deserve it.
“I’ve always felt like the seniors can bring energy to this team, and I thought whenever I hit that (home run) I could really get us going. And it really showed because we just didn’t stop. We didn’t let up all game.”
Hernando 16, Pasco 6 (6 inn.)
123 456 R H E
PAS 011 121 — 6 9 3
HER 260 026 — 16 12 2
PAS – Mills, Cross (2), Gavin (6) and Melton.
HER – Flowers, Young (4), Miller (6) and Treverton.
W – Young (1-1). L – Mills (2-3).
2B – Allen 2, Bammert (HER).
3B – Young (HER).
HR – Wilson (PAS); Kilbourne, Young (HER).
Records – Pasco (16-10), Hernando (23-4)
Class 5A, District 7 Baseball Tournament
Central 2, Nature Coast 0
Wesley Chapel 10, Weeki Wachee 2
Pasco 8, Zephyrhills 4
Hernando 2, Central 1
Pasco 8, Wesley Chapel 1
Hernando 16, Pasco 6