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Friday, Mar 27, 2015

Hernando, Springstead face ‘sweet’ repeat


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History will be made in the local baseball ranks Tuesday night.

For only the second time in county history, two teams have advanced to the Sweet 16. When this feat was initially accomplished in 2008, both Hernando Christian Academy and Nature Coast traveled for regional semifinal matchups.

This time, neither Hernando nor Springstead will have to wrack up any miles, marking the first time two county squads will simultaneously play host in this round.

Adding intrigue, both contests will be district final rematches, pitting opponents who already have three games between one another this season.

Eustis (20-8) will arrive at Emerson Field to take on Hernando (23-5) in a Class 5A, Region II tilt. Citrus (14-14) must make a trip to Springstead (17-8) for 6A-II action. Both games start at 7 p.m.

The respective winners will each advance to the regional finals on Friday.

Less than two weeks ago, Eustis certainly held the upper hand over Hernando the past three seasons, capturing all five meetings.

Then the Leopards defeated the host Panthers for the 5A-District 7 title, 5-2.

One important thing to note, that was the first time the two teams faced in a postseason setting over that span. Hernando head coach Tim Sims pointed out that his club takes a different approach in the regular season, and doesn’t always have its pitching lined up.

Also, Eustis had hardly thumped the Leopards this year, winning 8-3 in Lake County on March 5 and 3-2 in Brooksville on March 22.

The other interesting caveat, senior right-hander Brandon Lawson hasn’t thrown a pitch against the Panthers in 2013.

Hernando’s ace delivered a three-hit shutout in Thursday’s 5-0 quarterfinal victory over Wesley Chapel, improving to 9-0 with a 0.33 earned run average.

After the game, Sims declined to name a starter for Tuesday. Another senior righty, Trae Ratliff (6-1, 1.76 ERA), turned in a dominant performance in the 5A-7 championship game, yielding two runs in seven innings on five hits and a walk, striking out 12.

In two starts versus the Panthers this season, Ratliff is 1-1 with a 5.25 ERA.

On the other side, Eustis has utilized both its top arms against the Leopards, southpaws Alex Hagner and Wesley Moulden.

Hagner, a senior committed to the University of Florida, is 6-2 with a 2.45 ERA, striking out 66 in 51.1 innings. He started and beat Hernando in the first meeting, though he was touched for three runs on seven hits and three walks over five innings of work.

The junior Moulden (7-1, 1.99) started the other two games against the Leopards, going 0-1 with a 4.07 ERA. He got the ball in Thursday’s 3-1 win at Pasco, tossing a two-hitter.

The Panthers posses a talented lineup, as well, headlined by senior catcher Chris Okey. One of the top catching prospect in this year’s draft, he’s hitting .427 with six doubles, two triples, four home runs and 28 runs batted in.

Hagner has handled the bat well, posting a .359 average, six doubles, four homers and 21 RBI. Senior third baseman Max Sellers has hit at a .349 clip with eight doubles, two triples, two home runs and 23 RBI.

Add in Hernando senior shortstop Christian Arroyo (.515, 12 doubles, three triples, 10 homers, 39 runs and 33 RBI), a UF signee garnering considerable attention, and Emerson Field figures to have a few scouts in attendance.

Sims admitted that on paper, Tuesday’s matchup seemed inevitable since the beginning of the season. He has a long-standing relationship with Eustis head coach David Lee going back to their playing days.

“We’ve played a lot of ball against each other. We’ve coached a lot of ball against each other,” Sims said. “He runs as good a program as anyone in the state.

“It’s going to be a whale of a game. It’ll be a fun game to coach in. It’ll be a good game for the teams to play in.

“The team that stays composed and goes about its business, communication-wise, pitch by pitch, the composed and methodical team will win between Hernando and Eustis.”

Hernando has at least reached the Elite Eight three straight years, but for Springstead this is entirely new turf.

When the Eagles recorded a 13-3 triumph over Gainesville on Wednesday night, it marked the first regional victory in team history.

The visiting Hurricanes, however, are quite familiar. Springstead has beaten them three times this year, by scores of 9-8 and 8-3 in the regular season.

In the 6A-District 6 title game, the Eagles came out on top again, 6-1. Citrus bounced back to beat Lake Weir on Wednesday, 8-5.

“I guess I’d rather be playing someone else,” Springstead head coach Jim Diven said. “I know their coach (Brady Bogart). He’s a good coach. I think if I had four shots at somebody, I would beat them. So that concerns me.

“But I also know my team is not the same as it was two or three weeks ago. They’ve really come alive. Adversity doesn’t get to them like it did before.”

An Eagle squad that dropped six games to losing teams seems to have eliminated that habit, to the point Diven felt confident his group wouldn’t take the ‘Canes lightly.

Once big difference-maker he pointed to was catcher Trent Wyzykowski. The senior had struggled behind the plate, particularly against Citrus, Diven said, until recently.

“Wyzykowski has stepped up and taken it to a different notch,” Diven said. “He’s caught fantastic the last three or four games and that’s big.”

The senior also broke out of a 2-for-28 slump, going 2-for-3 with four RBI against Gainesville.

Who he’ll catch remains up in the air. Senior Brandon Brosher (5-2, 1.96 ERA) threw a complete game against the ‘Canes in the district finale, but had an uneven performance versus Gainesville.

The hard-throwing righty needed 49 pitches to get through the first inning, giving up two runs. He rebounded to strike out 11 in four innings of work, but had to depart due to a high pitch count, having given up three runs.

Brosher has pitched in all three Citrus games, starting two of them, posting a 1-0 record and 2.00 ERA.

Fellow senior Ryan Nicoll (3-0, 0.91 ERA) could also get the start. He’s pitched twice against the ‘Canes, starting once, with no decisions, a save and 1.62 ERA.

Whoever gets the ball, the Eagles obviously have an extraordinary opportunity to reach their first regional final.

“We’re unbelievably excited,” Diven said. “It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it right now and I have a feeling my guys are that way, too. We certainly know we can beat them and with that carrot out in front of them, who knows?

“We’re going to come out to win this ball game, nothing held back.”

The Eustis-Hernando game will be carried live across WWJB (AM) 1450, as well as 103.9 FM, and streamed online across A free WWJB app is also available for iPhone and iPod Touch. Pregame show is set for 6:30 p.m.

At a Glance

What – Class 5A, Region II semifinal

Who – Eustis Panthers (20-8, 5A-7 runners-up) at Hernando Leopards (23-5, 5A-7 champions)

Where – Hernando’s Emerson Field

When – Tuesday at 7 p.m.

At Stake – Winner advances to Friday’s final.

What – Class 6A, Region II semifinal

Who – Citrus Hurricanes (14-14, 6A-6 runners-up) at Springstead Eagles (17-8, 6A-6 champions)

Where – Springstead baseball field

When – Tuesday at 7 p.m.

At Stake – Winner advances to Friday’s final.

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