Veteran Wesley Chapel head coach Chuck Yingling knows that tonight, his team isn’t exactly easing into regional waters.
The Wildcats (19-8) will travel to Emerson Field for a Class 5A, Region II quarterfinal against host Hernando (22-5) at 7 p.m.
These senior-laden Leopards are making their fourth straight regional appearance, setting a new school record and tying a county mark held by Central (1999-2002) and Nature Coast (2007-10).
In each of those past three seasons, they’ve gone at least as far as the Elite Eight, a feat unmatched in county history.
Then there are those eight seniors in the starting lineup, four of whom are already signed to play in college, two with Division I programs.
Oh, and the Leopards are scorching hot, winners of 10 straight, five of them against teams still currently alive this postseason.
“Hernando is our biggest steppingstone in my opinion,” Yingling said. “Our road to success goes through Hernando.”
The winner of this contest moves on to a 5A-II semifinal Tuesday, against the survivor of the Eustis-Pasco quarterfinal.
First they dusted defending champ Tavares in the semifinals, 10-1, then defeated top seed and host Eustis in the final, 5-2.
Beating the Panthers on Friday night was significant beyond the district championship implications. Hernando had dropped all five previous meetings between the clubs the last three years.
But it was hard to tell that Eustis had the Leopards’ number. Hernando took an early lead, then jumped right back in front after the Panthers rallied to tie, and never looked back.
Catcher Jake Johnson went 3-for-4 with a double, two-run home run and four runs batted in. He’s batting .448 with five doubles and 10 RBI during the Leopards’ current win streak, and has raised his average from .205 to .301.
The only hotter bat in the Hernando lineup belongs to shortstop Christian Arroyo. The University of Florida signee has a .568 average over that span, including six doubles and six homers while driving in 16 runs and scoring 14.
Arroyo’s overall numbers look like something out of a video game: .515, 12 doubles, three triples, 10 home runs, 36 runs and 33 RBI.
With ace Brandon Lawson having pitched against Tavares, Trae Ratliff stepped up with a dominant performance against the Panthers, striking out 12 in a complete-game effort.
Though Hernando head coach Tim Sims declined to name a starter, it would seem likely that Lawson will be on the hill tonight.
The senior right-hander, signed with USF, is 8-0 with a 0.37 earned run average, and he has struck out 96 batters against just seven walks.
“I’ve known Tim for a long time. I know he has the Arroyo kid, I know he has the Lawson kid,” Yingling said. “He’s got a good team. They always play hard, always work. He’s a really good coach and he expects a lot from his kids. You expect a good team every time you play them.”
The Wildcats, the 5A-8 runners-up, are no slouches on paper, either. They’re back in regionals after a two-year absence, having gone from 2008-10.
As a team, they’re hitting .345, paced by senior third baseman Kyle Custer at .532. He also has 21 RBI, second to junior first baseman Turner Imhoff, who has 27 along with a .493 average.
Senior Chase Ingram has done the lion’s share of the pitching, having thrown 75 innings. The Hillsborough Community College-bound righty has a 9-1 mark with a 0.93 ERA and 109 strikeouts.
“He’s developed his breaking pitches. He’s gotten a lot better this year,” Yingling said of Ingram, confirming he would start tonight. “And second, he’s always been a strong mental person on the mound. He does a great job in tough situations of hanging tough.
“I see a good pitching matchup. They’re both really, really good pitchers. They’re both mentally strong on the mound. I look for the team who makes the least mistakes to be successful.”
“It should be very close,” Sims said. “I expect a defensive game. Coach Yingling’s group is very well-coached. And it should be two very good ball teams.”
The weight of those expectations has thus far seemed to fuel Hernando rather than rattle it.
“The whole thing from Day 1, the goal with this group is make somebody beat us. Don’t beat yourself,” Sims said. “They’re continually fighting pitch by pitch. The pitchers are pounding the zone and attacking pitch by pitch, inning by inning, and we’re playing pretty well.
“The mental aspect to the game has been there with this group since we got back from spring break, and I expect it to be that way.”
The game will be carried live across WWJB (AM) 1450, WXJB (FM) 99.9, 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 6:30 p.m.
At a Glance