On softball diamonds across the Sunshine State, two words are being stressed daily in district action this week: pitching and defense.
In layman’s terms top-seeded Hernando and second-seeded Tavares advanced to Friday’s 7 p.m. Class 5A, District 7 Tournament final at Tom Varn Park thanks to dandy glove work and precious work inside the pitching circle.
Tavares junior right-hander Koral Smith watched her club overcome two errors as the Lady Bulldogs eliminated Dunnellon in the first of two semifinals Thursday in Brooksville, 3-1.
In the nightcap, Purple and Gold right-hander Courtney Riddle chained the previously hot Nature Coast bats to three singles behind no walks and four strikeouts in a 6-0 victory.
Not that Riddle (19-6) was alone; on offense, her teammates cracked a game-high 12 hits – highlighted by a game-high 4-for-4 effort by senior Ashley Sims – off starter Kathryn Gonzalez (11-12).
On defense, HHS (19-7) sparkled converting 31-of-31 chances led by a six-assist effort by second sacker Summer Solovitch and two fine grabs in center field by the fleet-footed Sims to eliminate NCT (14-13).
The two semifinal victors automatically advance to next Wednesday’s 5A-Region II quarterfinals.
Friday’s winner will host the loser of the 5A-8 finale in Zephyrhills between Gulf and Pasco. Conversely, Friday’s 5A-8 winner will host the 5A-7 loser next Wednesday.
While Thursday’s win allowed Tavares to reach its fourth straight district finale, the Lady Leopards snapped an eight-year drought reaching the same destination.
Riddle held the keys to victory fashioning her county-best 22nd complete game in 25 starts.
Against the Lady Sharks, Riddle notched her county-leading sixth shutout. How remarkable was Riddle’s feat? Consider the county’s five other softball programs have combined for a total of five shutouts.
The fifth-year varsity pitcher (two years with Hernando Christian Academy, three with Hernando) limited the Lady Sharks to three base runners – all on harmless singles.
Riddle’s no-hit bid was spoiled by frosh Chyloe Gonzalez’s two-out single in the first frame.
After retiring the next nine in a row, freshman Brittany Rodriguez singled through the shortstop’s hole with two outs in the fourth.
How’d Riddle respond? She retired the next nine Lady Sharks in order before sophomore Courtney David lined a single to right-center with two outs in the seventh.
With the leather, Sims took away sinking liners by Rodriguez in the first inning and by David in the fourth – both catches ended each inning.
As Riddle handcuffed the Lady Sharks to a combined 3-for-24 effort at the plate (a .125 batting average), Solovitch did her part with a game-high six assists.
HHS completed a three-game sweep of NCT as 8-of-9 starters collected at least one hit off Kat Gonzalez.
Junior shortstop Tania McDaniel (.368) spanked a two-run double to right-center plating her 25th and 26th runs batted in on the season, 2-0 HHS.
Riddle (.443) followed with a RBI single – notching her county-best 36th RBI plating McDaniel.
Riddle led off the third inning with a deep drive to center field where Dana Mackiewicz banged against the wall while making the catch and robbing Riddle of at least extra bases.
Undaunted, Solovitch (.310) and Sierra Cannon (.254) followed with back-to-back singles.
Sophomore third sacker Danielle Harvey looped a RBI single to center to score Solovitch. Two batters later, Erika Lewis’ grounder drove in Cannon.
Hernando’s second three-run rally was completed when Lane lashed a RBI single up the middle plating Harvey, 6-0.
The Purple and Gold had many more opportunities to extend the lead but stranded nine runners on base.
Riddle finished 1-for-4 at the plate as David made two fine catches against her in the fourth and sixth innings.
Afterward, both mentors addressed the game’s glove work and pitching.
On the Lady Leopards’ play, “They played flawless,” described Hall of Famer and first-year NCT skipper Ernie Chatman. “But I thought we played well, too. Yes, we had some bumps out there (suffering a game-high four errors), but we made some plays, just not enough. Had we not made some plays – particularly in the outfield – it could have been a whole lot worse.”
In general terms, “There were a lot of good softball plays made tonight,” said Chatman. “I thought the key was they kept getting their leadoff batters on, which puts a lot of pressure on our defense.
“We didn’t help ourselves with three hits,” shrugged Chatman. “I was encouraged by our growth. There were a lot of peaks and valleys with this team. This year’s experience will definitely help us next year.”
On Riddle’s outing, “Of course I haven’t seen her pitch in every one of her games here, but tonight was one of the top-three performances I’ve seen from her,” described Coach Chatman.
From the home dugout, HHS’ eighth-year skipper Kevin Bittinger celebrated the moment.
“Pitching and defense was the difference tonight,” declared Bittinger. “Courtney (Riddle) took care of the Nature Coast bats and the defense followed suit. When you don’t allow any walks and don’t commit any errors - that’s a tremendous effort.
“I thought Nature Coast’s outfield saved a few runs, especially on two well-struck balls by Courtney,” added Bittinger. “Overall this was a solid effort 1-9. All season long it hasn’t been one player or two players, we’re the Hernando Leopards. We need contributions from everyone.”
On facing Tavares for the third time Friday after splitting the regular-season series, “Our goal all season is to win districts,” said Bittinger. “I bet Tavares is saying the same thing. Not much separated either team in the first two meetings; I think it’ll be a great ballgame.”
On the significance of the win, “Coach B. (Bittinger) really wanted this,” explained the 17-year-old Sims. “This (playing for the district championship) hasn’t happened for Coach B. I wanted to be a part of it.”
In describing the keys of the game, “Defensively, we were phenomenal,” said Sims. “We had a lot of talk and all worked together.”
On Riddle’s efforts, “Courtney always comes through for us,” explained the 17-year-old McDaniel, who finished 2-for-4 at the plate. “Defensively, we played awesome. I don’t think we could’ve played any better.
“Beating Nature Coast was nice. It’s a big rivalry game,” noted McDaniel. “But now that game is over and we have to focus on playing hard Friday against Tavares.”
“We were so focused for this game,” pointed out the 17-year-old Riddle. “We felt like we choked in districts last year. I’m so glad we redeemed ourselves this year. Our defense was huge. Ashley made those two big catches and nothing got past Summer at second base.”
How badly did Riddle want a shutout?
“I wanted the shutout real bad,” she said. “Tomorrow, I don’t mind playing Tavares. We always seem to elevate our game against the better teams. I think it’ll be another great game.”
Hernando 6, NCT 0
123 456 7 R H E
NCT 000 000 0 – 0 3 4
HER 303 000 X – 6 12 0
NCT – K. Gonzalez and C. Gonzalez.
HER – Riddle and Lane.
W – Riddle (19-6). L – K. Gonzalez (11-12).
2B – HER: McDaniel.
Records – Nature Coast Technical (14-13), Hernando (19-7).
Class 5A, District 7 Gils Softball Tourney Recap
at Brooksville’s Tom Varn Park
NCT 9, Crystal River 2
Dunnellon 5, Eustis 4 (8 Innings)
Tavares 3, Dunnellon 1
Hernando 6, NCT 0
Tavares vs. Hernando, 7 p.m.