A small gathering of scouts sitting behind home plate at Stuart Cottrell Field in Eustis explained to some young boys their purpose in attending Friday night’s game.
Their primary focus was to watch Panther catcher Chris Okey, one of the top high school prospects in the country.
But he was not the backstop who would have the biggest impact on this Class 5A, District 7 Tournament final. Rather, it was his counterpart from visiting Hernando.
Senior Jake Johnson went 3-for-4 with a double, a two-run home run and four runs batted in, helping the second-seeded Leopards upend the top-seeded Panthers, 5-2.
The district title is Hernando’s (22-5) third in the last four years, and means it’ll host 5A-8 runner-up Wesley Chapel in a 5A-Region II quarterfinal at Emerson Field, Thursday at 7 p.m.
It also gave the Leopards their first win over Eustis (21-8) in six attempts over the past three seasons.
“Since I’ve been in high school, we’ve never beaten Eustis,” Johnson said. “That’s a great team, a great program; they’ve got a great coach. Our energy level was high tonight.
“I was seeing the pitches real well tonight. The first guy threw against us before and we didn’t make any adjustments against him. Seeing him again, knowing what he’s got, we were able to make the adjustments.”
Johnson wasn’t alone in the hero department. His battery mate, right-handed pitcher Trae Ratliff, tossed a complete, scattering five hits and a walk over seven innings, striking out 12.
“Everything was working,” Johnson said. “He hit his spots as well as he’s ever done. His breaking ball was on tonight and he was playing with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. That’s what we need from him.”
That didn’t include a no-decision March 22 at Hernando, when he allowed two runs over 5 1/3 innings in an eventual 3-2 Panther win.
When back-to-back strikeouts followed Christian Arroyo’s leadoff double in the top of the third, it appeared another scoring chance would be squandered. Then Johnson ripped a double over the center fielder’s head to the wall in right-center to make it 1-0.
The lead expanded to 2-0 in the fourth, on an odd-looking play when with runners on first and second and none out Eloy Ramirez caught Eustis running a wheel play.
Instead of bunting as expected, Ramirez nearly took the head off charging third baseman Max Sellers, who made an awkward dive to get out the way as the ball grounded through the hole vacated by the shortstop covering third.
Ratliff encountered his only real trouble in the bottom of the fourth. Zac Johnson started the inning by smashing a ball over the fence in left.
Two singles and a force out made it first and third with one away. As Sellers drew a throw attempting to steal second, Okey raced home from third to tie things up.
Sellers continued on to third on the play, only to be stranded when Ratliff fanned the next two batters.
Brandon Lawson started the fifth with a base hit and Jake Johnson followed by lining a two-run shot to left. He added another RBI on a two-out single to left in the sixth.
An All-County selection who had hit a combined .450 the previous two seasons, Johnson has uncharacteristically struggled at the plate in 2013, and started off in a 5-for-32 slump.
“I’ve been doing not as well as I should have done,” Johnson said. “But I’m not going to let it get me down. This is the second season. The regular season is behind me. The second season is what counts.”
On that same field March 5, Ratliff lasted only 3 2/3, permitting six runs in an 8-3 defeat. He credited the difference this time around to preparation, and a strong fastball.
“We were going to go out there, get on top early and not let up,” Ratliff said. “That (early lead) gave me a lot of confidence. I didn’t have to work so hard.”
“It starts on the mound,” Hernando head coach Tim Sims said. “Ratliff was definitely on tonight. When Ratliff throws that way, he is very, very tough.
“We got some key hits, and moved the ball at times when we needed to put some pressure on them defensively, with men on base.”
Now the Leopards will again traverse through regionals, having gone to at least the Elite Eight three straight years. A club that started eight seniors certainly doesn’t want its run to end prematurely.
“It was a team victory. That’s the way this team plays. It was a team victory, one through nine, no doubt,” Sims said.
“This group is very business-like, and I think it’s a direct reflection on Jake and Christian and Brandon. Those three come to practice, do their work and all the others fall right in line.”
No. 5 Nature Coast vs. No. 4 Crystal River
Nature Coast def. Crystal River, 2-1
No. 3 Dunnellon vs. No. 6 Tavares
Tavares def. Dunnellon, 6-5
No. 2 Hernando vs. Tavares
Hernando def. Tavares, 10-1
No. 1 Eustis vs. Nature Coast
Eustis def. Nature Coast, 12-2
Eustis vs. Hernando
Hernando def. Eustis, 5-2