Another round of regionals offers another bit of history for Hernando County baseball.
Hernando High has made a habit of reaching the Elite Eight, having done so now each of the past four seasons and 12 times in its long history.
But the Leopards were the only county club to ever play a game that deep into the postseason. That officially changes today.
Hernando (24-5) will host St. Johns-Creekside (19-9) at Emerson Field for the Class 5A, Region II final starting at 7 p.m.
Meanwhile, Springstead (18-8) travels to Orlando-Edgewater (23-5) for the 6A-II final, which begins at 4 p.m.
For the first time ever, two teams from the county are a step away from advancing to the FHSAA Finals, which will take place May 22-23 at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers.
“As a member of the HYL (Hernando Youth League) board of directors, it is fun to pick up the paper and walk into a restaurant and the different stores and people are talking about the Hernando and Springstead baseball teams,” Hernando head coach Tim Sims said.
“I’m pulling for Springstead, and that’s no bull. That’s not coach speak. That’s truly from the heart. I’m very proud of that program and those kids over there. It would be an awesome finish to both of those teams’ years to both go down to Fort Myers together.”
Over two home contests, Springstead faced a Gainesville team well below .500 before taking on Citrus, the 6A-6 foe it had already beaten three times.
Though the Eagles suffered six defeats to teams with losing records in the regular season, they’ve taken care of business at this stage, beating Gainesville 13-3 last week and Citrus on Tuesday night, 9-3.
The regional final didn’t figure to set up nearly as well. Reigning region champ and unbeaten Melbourne loomed as a potential opponent.
Then came Wednesday afternoon’s semifinal, in which the Bulldogs were dropped to 26-1, blowing a 4-0 lead to host Edgewater en route to a stunning 11-5 loss.
Suddenly the idea of the Eagles reaching the state semifinal doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
“I was expecting (Melbourne) to win, but I’m not that surprised,” Springstead head coach Jim Diven said. “An awful lot of things have to go right for an awfully long time for a team to go 26-0. I’d almost rather have our record than 26-0. That’s a lot of pressure and that’s probably what caught up to them a bit.
“The dynamic of my team has changed from seven or eight games ago. I don’t think they’ll take anything for granted. They feel like they can play baseball with anybody and that’s what they need to do. They’re starting to realize we could do something special here.”
Diven admittedly doesn’t know much about Edgewater, also called the Eagles. The school’s field does not have lights; hence today’s early start time.
There’s certainly no historical edge. Neither program had a regional triumph to its credit until this year’s quarterfinals.
By virtue of playing in the Orlando area, Edgewater may be a bit more battle-tested; though Springstead has quality wins over Hernando, Land O’ Lakes and South Sumter.
There is one common opponent: Nature Coast. The Sharks, who split their two games with Springstead, lost to Edgewater on March 25, in the Crack of the Bat Tournament at Groveland-South Lake, 9-2.
“They were more of a Punch-and-Judy-type team, meaning I did not see much power,” Nature Coast head coach Vito Tambasco said of Edgewater. “Quick, good defense, they slap the ball and run. The pitching was OK, but was nothing great.
“Personally, I really believe Springstead should win. Jim has got those kids playing real good.”
Edgewater was certainly able to light up the scoreboard in an eight-run fourth inning against Melbourne.
Senior J.B. Woodman, an Ole Miss signee, registered two hits and drove in a pair of runs in the game. Riley Hogan had three hits and Will Hardy tossed a complete game.
What could put Edgewater at a considerable disadvantage is the fact it’s playing its third game in five days. Due to last week’s rain, it didn’t play its quarterfinal until Monday.
Conversely, Springstead played through the lousy weather to get its quarterfinal in as scheduled, and hasn’t had to tax its pitching staff.
Diven made the decision to throw Ryan Nicoll rather than Brandon Brosher against Citrus, which would seem to put Brosher (5-2, 1.96 earned run average) in line to get the ball today.
However, Diven wouldn’t commit to starting the Oral Roberts University signee. Springstead has only used Brosher and Nicoll, two senior right-handers, over four postseason contests. Nicoll tossed a full seven innings on Tuesday.
“We have other good pitchers besides Brosher,” Diven said. “We’re really deep.”
With Brosher (.441, four home runs, 26 runs batted in) and Nicoll (.347, 18 RBI) also leading the offense, these Eagles would appear to have the firepower to keep what has turned into a dream season alive.
“The kids know they have to play hard,” Diven said. “I just have a good feeling about this whole thing.”
The Leopards, having lost at Green Cove Springs-Clay in the 5A-II final last year, 4-2, have downed two stout regional opponents in Wesley Chapel and Eustis thus far.
Both of those games were started by Brandon Lawson, who improved to 11-0 with a 0.27 ERA.
The senior right-hander signed to USF won’t be available to pitch, at least not for any great length, so the mound duties with fall to fellow senior Trae Ratliff.
Signed to St. Johns River State College, Ratliff can certainly hold his own. He sits 6-1 with a 1.80 ERA, having struck out 58 batters in 42.2 innings.
Ratliff started in this round in 2012 and had a representative showing despite taking the loss, giving up three runs (one earned) in five innings, striking out six. He’s coming off an outstanding start his last time out, when he struck out a season-high 12 batters in a complete-game effort to beat Eustis in the 5A-7 title tilt.
Creekside, like Edgewater, will be playing for the third time this week. The Knights beat Palatka on Monday and Clay on Tuesday, both by scores of 8-4.
“We’re getting ready for a very tough, battle-hardened Creekside,” Sims said. “They throw strikes, play good defense; they’re fundamentally sound and it’s going to be a good ballgame.
“They had two pretty comfortable wins. They probably used multiple pitchers. Depending on pitch count and how they bounce back, when you get to this point of the year you do what it takes. Playing three games in five days, sometimes that’s easier. You keep your game rhythm.”
The Knights are expected to employ a combination of seniors Tyler Wills (6-4, 1.99) and Michael Gray (5-1, 1.05), plus junior Matt Barrington (5-1, 1.56).
Wills, by far the team leader having pitched 59.2 innings, started Monday and Tuesday, though he only threw a combined 5.1 frames.
Barrington pitched 5.2 innings of scoreless relief to get the win over Clay.
Offensively, the Knights are paced by sophomore Dillon Reed (.341, 11 RBI) and Angel Camacho (.271, two homers, 16 RBI), as well as senior Chris Geiger (.329, 16 RBI) and junior Matt Allen (.333, 13 RBI).
Creekside will need to overcome any potential fatigue and a three-hour trip to upend the experienced Leopards. Seniors such as Lawson, shortstop Christian Arroyo (.520, 12 doubles, three triples, 11 home runs, 35 RBI and 40 runs scored) and catcher Jake Johnson (.308, eight doubles, two homers, 25 RBI) have continually stepped up, not wanting their prep careers to end.
“That’s something we embraced as a coaching staff with this senior class,” Sims said. “They wanted this opportunity to play in this game. They’ve accomplished what they wanted to as a group and they have a chance to accomplish even more.
“I’m very proud of this group. This will probably go down as the easiest group for me to coach. On and off the field, they’re responsible for their actions and they do what they need to do to get better.”
The Creekside-Hernando game will be carried live across WWJB (AM) 1450, as well as 103.9 FM, and streamed online across www.wwjb.com. A free WWJB app is also available for iPhone and iPod Touch. Pregame show is set for 6:15 p.m.
At a Glance