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Friday, Mar 27, 2015

Hernando hosts second annual Lady Leopard Slam

TONY CASTRO Hernando Today correspondent

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Prior to his eighth season, Hernando High skipper Kevin Bittinger called his 2013 schedule “the Lady Leopards’ most difficult schedule to date.”

The reason was crystal clear. He wanted his talented club battle-tested against some of the area’s finest diamond opposition before the start of the state series on April 15.

To that end, Hernando will be participating over the next two weekends in back-to-back mega softball tourneys in Brooksville and Belleview.

The initial arduous test begins today within the friendly confines of the City of Brooksville’s Tom Varn Park.

“We’d like this tournament to become a local staple,” said Coach Bittinger, whose team arrives 12-2 overall riding its longest win skein (10) since 2001’s 12-game streak. “A lot of the girls know each other; we also want to make it fun for them.

“If you want to win a district championship, then you’ve got to beat tougher teams,” acknowledged Bittinger, who enters 111-82 lifetime at Hernando. “Ultimately, as coaches we’re preparing our teams for districts.”

The Lady Leopard Softball Slam II features 16 teams – up from eight teams in 2012 – representing six different counties (Hernando, Pasco, Citrus, Pinellas, Osceola and Broward) including: Central, Gulf, St. Petersburg Catholic, Mitchell, Nature Coast, Pasco, Kissimmee-Poinciana, Clearwater-Countryside, Fivay, Lecanto, River Ridge, Weeki Wachee, Hollywood-Chaminade Madonna, Citrus, Anclote and host Hernando.

According to the Bittinger, tournament director, the tourney’s top four seeds are (in no particular order) Mitchell, Countryside, River Ridge and Hernando.

Each team is guaranteed four games (weather permitting) across two days of fast-pitch competition.

The 64-game event is expected to run through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Team trophies will be awarded Saturday night to the top three finishing teams.

Last year’s inaugural winner – Broward County’s University School of Nova Southeastern – opted not to return and defend its tourney title.

Area softball mentors are hopeful of utilizing this weekend’s slew of games during spring break to solve whatever lingering issues they may be facing with their offense, defense, pitching and overall cohesiveness.

As a whole, the area coaches believe Slam II will serve as a supreme litmus test prior to the state series.

One of the heavy favorites to walk away with the tallest trophy is the talented Royal Knights from River Ridge.

The West Pasco County club arrives 17-1 overall. River Ridge, which features three seniors, opened the season riding an 11-game winning skein before falling in the final of the Palm Harbor University Hurricane Invitational to Tampa-Plant, 1-0.

Since that setback 19th-year skipper Ernie Beck’s crew has devoured its next six victims by a combined 70 runs, 76-6.

Under Beck, the Class 6A, District 10 Knights have reached the FHSAA Final Four thrice including dropping hard-to-swallow, back-to-back one-run losses in the state finals in 2002-03 – both to Fort Lauderdale-St. Thomas Aquinas.

Next month, River Ridge is aiming for its 15th regional playoff appearance since Beck took over the reins from Tom Fleming in 1995.

His squad enters Brooksville averaging an astonishing 11 runs per game, hitting a collective .403.

On the Knights’ goals this weekend, “We don’t learn anything about our team until we play outside our realm,” pointed out Beck. “We’re going to Brooksville to face good competition and see that the girls get tested. Records are deceiving. Just because you’re not unbeaten doesn’t mean you have a bad ball club.”

Beck did not mince his words on his team’s ultimate goal Saturday night, “I’ll be extremely disappointed if this team not only doesn’t make the finals, but doesn’t win it. I’m not concerned with who we play as much as how we play.

“This team has the attitude that they don’t want to lose,” described Coach Beck. “That doesn’t mean we can’t lose. This isn’t a cocky group; they go in very confident.”

Hernando, which fell in the title game of this event 4-0 last spring, would love to snap its nine-year tourney drought.

Since April 29, 2004’s 3A-6 4-3 title win over Pasco at Tom Varn Park, Hernando has dropped 13 straight tournaments.

“We’re playing good ball, but I’ll be honest, I want to know if we’re streaky or not,” pointed out Bittinger, whose teams have captured four Hernando County championships in eight seasons. “Coming in, it was a good time of the year for our girls to step back and recharge their battery for the stretch run.”

Though Hernando arrives hitting a collective .324 while averaging 8.5 runs per game, “I’d like to see a little more consistency in our hitting 1-9,” he said. “Defensively, our infield is very good. But we’ve been pressing a little bit lately. We need to let the game come to us.”

On what Bittinger would like to see this weekend, “I’d like to know who the best team in the (Hernando/Pasco/Citrus) area is,” he said. “I want to see if we belong with the big boys.

“We’d like to provide River Ridge or anybody else a little disappointment. We’re looking to win four games,” emphasized Coach Bittinger. “Hopefully, each of the teams that play here walks away believing it (the tournament) was fair and competitive.”

Hernando is led by junior right-hander Courtney Riddle.

Riddle, who guided Hernando Christian Academy to back-to-back Class 1A Final Fours in 2009-10, is having an MVP-type season.

Riddle arrives 12-2 on the mound with 110 strikeouts and 24 walks in 93.2 innings pitched.

At the plate, Riddle leads the Lady Leopards in hits (27), RBI (26) and batting average (.563).

Hernando opens at 9 a.m. against Anclote (3-15) before facing the survivor of Citrus (10-5)/Chaminade at 3 p.m.

With two wins on today, the Lady Leopards could face highly-touted River Ridge at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing teams in the field is Central.

The Lady Bears (11-4) arrive riding a six-game winning streak. Head coach Tyson Ellis’ crew is averaging over eight runs per game, hitting a collective .353.

Senior shortstop Katie McCarthy enters the weekend ranked third in the county in hitting at .562.

The biggest difference has been on the rubber with freshman southpaw Kaeleen Koehler. Koehler, who arrives hitting .352, has notched 66 strikeouts in 71 innings.

“Right now, we’re in an unfamiliar place,” explained the sixth-year Lady Bear mentor. “We want to come back playing a little better defensively and continue to hone our pitching. We’re manufacturing runs, but there’s always room for improvement.”

Central opens at 1:30 p.m. against 13-3 Gulf.

Interestingly, after 132 career games, Ellis is facing Gulf for the first time. His Lady Bears are also seeking their first tournament title in eight tries.

“We’re facing a very tough Gulf team out of the gate,” noted Ellis, who is 48-84 lifetime. “They’re well-coached and they’re obviously doing all the right things to come in here with 13 wins.

“I’m excited to play them; I know the girls are, too,” he said. “I think in a sense, we’ve been flying under the radar and so has Gulf. I think it’ll be a good game to watch.”

Ellis has a slightly different view on the tourney’s purpose than Bittinger.

“We’re not as focused on records,” stressed Coach Elis. “We just want to get better for districts. We need to see a little bit more of our depth. We also want to see how some of our JV kids respond to this kind of atmosphere.”

Depending on the outcome against Gulf, the Lady Bears will then face Mitchell or St. Pete. Catholic at 7 p.m.

Like Central, Nature Coast went 1-2 in last year’s inaugural Lady Leopard Slam.

Unlike the red-hot Lady Leopards or Bears, the Lady Sharks limp into Tom Varn Park, losers of four straight games.

According to first-year skipper Ernie Chatman, the Lady Sharks (8-8) arrive hitting a collective .288. They’ve been held to a total of seven hits over their past three games.

Chloe Gonzalez paces the team in hitting (.400) while Courtney David leads the Lady Sharks in RBI (15).

“We come in .500,” noted the Hall of Fame mentor Chatman. “I don’t think we’re playing as well as we could be. We haven’t hit the ball or played as well defensively as we did earlier in the season.

“The key for us? We have to put the ball in play offensively and our pitcher (light-tossing Kathryn Gonzalez) has to pitch well regarding location,” noted Chatman. “No matter who we play we have to come out and swing the bats better and we’ve got to make routine plays (defensively).”

Nature Coast opens against always-tough Pasco at noon today.

“I understand their pitchers don’t throw as hard either,” said Chatman on the scouting report. “Like most teams, their top four hitters are pretty good.”

On the Lady Sharks’ goals, “Hopefully, we can start building some momentum,” stressed Chatman. “You don’t get better beating teams by the 10-run rule.”

Winless Weeki Wachee (0-13) open at 10 a.m. against loaded River Ridge.

On the Lady Hornets’ expectations, Weeki Wachee head coach Linda Rogers texted, “We are looking forward to joining some elite teams for this tournament. As a young team, we are hoping to grow from the experience.”

At a Glance

What – Lady Leopard Softball Slam II

Who – A total of 16 teams including: Central, Gulf, St. Petersburg Catholic, Mitchell, Nature Coast, Pasco, Kissimmee-Poinciana, Clearwater-Countryside, Fivay, Lecanto, River Ridge, Weeki Wachee, Hollywood-Chaminade Madonna, Citrus, Anclote and host Hernando. Each team is guaranteed four games across two days of fast-pitch competition.

When – Today through Saturday, with action beginning both days at 9 a.m. and running until approximately 10 p.m.

Where – Tom Varn Park

At Stake – Team trophies awarded Saturday night to the top three finishing teams.

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