Two Hernando County softball teams from Brooksville – Hernando and Nature Coast Technical – make up two of Thursday’s eight teams involved in the Class 5A, Region II quarterfinals.
The co-Hernando County and 5A-District 7 champion Lady Leopards (25-2) host the very dangerous 5A-8 runner-up Dunedin Lady Falcons (17-6) at 7 p.m. at Tom Varn Park.
Thursday’s second-ever meeting between the Lady Falcons and Lady Leopards will be carried live on radio across WWJB (AM) 1450, as well as 103.9 and 101.1 (FM). The pregame show is set for 6:30 p.m.
Meanwhile, the co-Hernando County and 5A-7 runner-up NCT Lady Sharks (22-4) venture to West Pasco County to face the 5A-8 champion River Ridge Royal Knights (25-3).
Should both Brooksville nines win, they would meet in the semifinals next Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Tom Varn Park.
Two Hernando County teams haven’t squared off this deep in the state series in 14 seasons, or since May 6, 2000’s nail-biting 3A-II 1-0 win by Hernando over Central.
Two unfamiliar programs will clash Thursday at Tom Varn.
Across 671 lifetime games for the Purple and Gold, HHS has faced Dunedin once.
The two clubs haven’t met since April 9, 1999’s Ridgewood Softball Classic at Veterans Park in Hudson, when HHS prevailed, 8-1.
Thursday serves as the Pinellas County program’s ninth regional tournament. The Lady Falcons are 6-8 lifetime in regional contests.
Skipper Roy Silver, who has guided the Lady Falcons to the regional playoffs the past two years, has given way to first-year mentor Sarah Broeseker.
Before dropping last Friday’s 5A-8 title game to River Ridge, 8-0, the Lady Falcons were red-hot reeling off eight straight wins.
Interestingly, Hernando’s last loss was also to River Ridge in New Port Richey on April 8, 8-1.
HHS had tamed RRHS in the Leopard Slam III final at Tom Varn on Mar. 22 in eight innings, 2-1.
The Purple and Gold enter Thursday’s tilt riding a five-game win skein – winners of 18 of their last 19.
This is Hernando’s 13th regional appearance. The Lady Leopards are a collective 14-15 in post-district play.
HHS fell in the 5A-II final last season at Tom Varn to St. Johns-Creekside, 10-0.
DHS is ultimately seeking its first Final Four appearance since 1991 while HHS hasn’t been reached “The Show” since 2001.
Silver said he knows very little about the Lady Leopards except that his senior shortstop, Tiona Hill (.411 batting average, 18 RBI), will be roommates next year at Central State College in Ocala with HHS ace Courtney Riddle.
“All I know is that they’re a quality team,” admitted Silver. “We need to do what we do best.”
On picking up the pieces after losing Friday’s game at River Ridge, “Sure, we were disappointed,” pointed out Silver. “We’re ready for another day of softball. We’re not going to change who we are. We have to take care of the moment. What happened last Friday is behind us.”
Silver’s team features only two seniors, but the core group is juniors.
“I’ve had these kids for three years,” he said. “Against Hernando, we have to throw strikes, manage the (pitching) zone and work hard on making the routine plays. If you don’t make plays and gives team like River Ridge and Hernando extra outs, you’re asking for trouble.
“Offensively, we’re not an explosive team,” added Silver. “We’re not the kind of team to get down early and battle back. We have to try and stay ahead.”
From the home dugout, HHS’ ninth-year skipper Kevin Bittinger likens the Lady Falcons to playing unknowns.
“They’re a mystery team; I don’t know much about them,” said Bittinger, who is 146-90 lifetime, including an 8-8 postseason slate. “But if they were the No. 1 seed in District 8, they can play some ball.”
DHS is led by junior pitcher Aubrey Elhers (16-5) with 107 strikeouts in 135 innings pitched and a 1.45 earned run average. Elhers, who arrives with a .350 batting average, leads the team in RBI (27).
“We’re not changing our approach,” declared Coach Bittinger. “It really doesn’t matter who we play, or who is in the other dugout. We have to control the things we can control – like our execution.
“Neither team is familiar with each other so there will be a feeling-out process probably along the first two innings,” predicted Bittinger. “Offensively, we’ll attack at the plate and Courtney (Riddle) will attack the strike zone. It would be silly for us to change anything.”
On the Lady Leopards’ approach, “We’re treating every team we play like they’re a state champion,” pointed out Bittinger. “Every one of our kids knows what’s at stake. I’m amazed that people still doubt us and that’s fine. Our girls are focused and hungry.”
❖ ❖ ❖
There is a stark contrast in playoff experience between the Lady Sharks and Royal Knights.
Thursday marks NCT’s 236th career game and only their second-ever regional appearance in 10 seasons.
In 2009, following the 4A-8 title game loss to Pasco, 4-0, NCT journeyed to Osceola County losing to Harmony, 1-0.
Thursday marks the sixth meeting between both schools.
RRHS leads the series, 4-1, winning the last four tilts. NCT won the first meeting in Brooksville on Feb. 25, 2010, 4-0. Since then the West Pasco County crew has skinned the Lady Sharks, 4-1, 12-1, 5-0 and 15-0.
Both of the blowouts were in the district playoffs in 2010 and 2011. Additionally, the April 18, 2011 15-0 loss was a perfect game thrown at NCT.
No Lady Shark starters remain from the teams’ last meeting. RRHS’ sensational second sacker Morgan Tolle is the only returning starter for the Royal Knights from the last meeting against NCT.
Offensively, NCT enters averaging over seven runs and almost 10 hits per game.
On the flip side, the Royal Knights arrive averaging over nine runs and nearly 11 hits per game.
RRHS is led by the 1-2 punch of Tolle, a senior, and junior Kenzi Maguire. The duo has combined for a gaudy 88 RBI while smacking 14 of the Knights’ 18 homers.
NCT sophomore catcher Chyloe Gonzalez paces the Lady Shark attack at .488 with 33 RBI and 21 extra-base hits, while her sister, junior Kathryn Gonzalez, arrives hitting .470 with 15 RBI.
“Nature Coast is definitely a good ball club and they’ve got some good hitters,” pointed out the 20th-year RRHS skipper Ernie Beck, who arrives 425-128 (.769) lifetime with seven district titles, eight district runner-up trophies and three regional crowns. “I’ve coached with (NCT coach) Ernie (Chatman) in the past. I know what kind of coach he is. I just think that if we hit and they hit, I think we’re a little stronger.”
On the game plan, “They’re going to try to keep it close and then pounce on us,” detailed Beck. “But honestly, I’m not concerned with them. I’m more concerned about our approach rather than what they may or may not do.”
Perhaps the biggest disparity lies inside the circle. RRHS junior right-hander Makenzie Goluba (21-3) has amassed 157 strikeouts in 151.2 innings pitched. She’s totaled 11 shutouts.
By comparison, RRHS is expected to face frosh right-handers Alyssa Gonzalez (7-0) or Abbey Primavera.
Primavera (12-4) absorbed the loss in last Thursday’s 5A-7 title tilt against Hernando, 6-5, permitting six runs (three earned) on seven hits against two walks and four strikeouts.
Gonzalez replaced Primavera in the fourth inning and hurled 2 1/3 innings of shutout relief.
Across 53.1 innings, the light-tossing Gonzalez has struck out 18 batters compared to 16 free passes.
Primavera has notched 66 strikeouts in 95 innings. She’s issued 14 walks and carries a fine 5-to-1 ratio in whiffs compared to free passes.
In defining the pitching matchups, “Goluba has a lot more experience in the circle than most of the teams we play,” explained Beck. “Because of that we should have the edge.
“Now, you don’t have to throw 60 miles per hour to effective. The key is putting the ball in play.”
Beck believes his strength of schedule is beginning to pay dividends.
“We played Canterbury (defending 2A state champs) and we’ve played at the Palm Harbor and Hernando tournaments,” noted Beck. “I’ve done everything possible to play the toughest teams out there. I don’t think you can be prepared for Thursday and beyond without playing the people we’ve played.”
“From everything I’ve read, this is River Ridge’s year,” described Coach Chatman, who arrives with a Hernando County-leading 240-78 career won-lost mark and has guided four teams to the Final Four over the past 11 seasons. “I have the utmost respect for the River Ridge program. My daughter played with Ernie’s daughter in travel ball – so we go back a little bit.”
On evaluating the Knights, “Trust me, his team will be prepared, they always are,” said Chatman. “The best thing I can say about them is they’re solid in every aspect. There’s not a weak link to them.”
On the keys to Thursday’s tilt, “We’ve got to avoid the big inning,” warned Chatman. “That’s what the good teams play for. We have to keep it close and string together a couple of big hits.”
NCT enters perhaps its most intense game sans a senior on its roster.
“For a lot of our kids we’re going to a place they haven’t been before,” said Chatman. “We’ll play, but we’ve got to do what we do best. We have to locate the ball and make the routine plays.”
Beck is optimistic on his team’s chances.
“I can tell because of their attitude in practice,” noted the Royal Knights’ skipper. “They’re anxious and ready to play. They know what it takes.”
At a Glance
What – Class 5A, Region II Softball Quarterfinals
Who – Dunedin Lady Falcons (17-6, 5A-8 runners-up) vs. Hernando Lady Leopards (25-2, 5A-7 champions)
Where – Tom Varn Park
When – Thursday at 7 p.m..
At Stake –Winner advances to the 5A-II semifinal set for April 29 against the survivor of Nature Coast at River Ridge.
Who – Nature Coast Lady Sharks (22-4, 5A-7 runners-up) vs. River Ridge (25-3, 5A-8 champions).
Where – River Ridge Middle/High School, 11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey.
When – Thursday at 7 p.m..
At Stake – Winner advances to the 5A-II semifinal set for April 29 against the survivor of Dunedin at Hernando.
By the numbers: Dunedin vs. Hernando
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
No. of regional appearances 9 13
No. of sectional/regional championships 2 2
No. of state appearances 2 2
No. of state championships 0 0
Regional/state W-L Record 6-8 11-12
By the numbers: Nature Coast vs. River Ridge
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
No. of regional appearances 2 16
No. of regional championships 0 3
No. of state appearances 0 3
No. of state championships 0 0
Regional/state W-L Record 0-1 14-15