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Tuesday, Mar 31, 2015

Nine Leopard seniors go down swinging

BY TONY CASTRO Hernando Today correspondent Hernando Today correspondent

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Upset Friday nearly claimed three victims among the Class 5A baseball elite.

For most of the night, Tampa-Jesuit trailed upstart Auburndale before the Hillsborough County-based Tigers rallied for a come-from-behind 5-4 win. Jesuit was fortunate to escape the upset bug.

The defending 5A state champions from Plantation-American Heritage were shocked in their own Broward County backyard by the visiting Fort Myers-Estero Wildcats, 3-2.

Estero, which had been in four previous regional finals since 2002 without reaching the Final Four, finally solved the Patriots despite graduating nine seniors last year.

The other shocker had an epicenter of John C. Emerson Field in Brooksville.

Hernando, behind its nine senior starters, appeared well on their way to the 92nd annual FHSAA Finals in 10 days at JetBlue Park in Fort Myers.

Hadn’t the Leopard nine disposed of 12 straight opponents?

Their second-best pitcher, senior Trae Ratliff, was fresh. He hadn’t pitched in two weeks – or since stuffing Eustis in the 5A-District 7 title game in Lake County.

In the other dugout, St. Johns-Creekside was playing its third pressure-packed regional tilt in five nights.

The Knights weren’t exactly streaking. Fifth-year head coach Luke Marabell’s club was 6-7 across its past 13 games – though it had won three in a row.

Make that four in a row after the St. Johns County crew eliminated HHS, 7-2, earning its first-ever Final Four semifinal berth against another upstart Estero on May 22.

Though the Leopards out-hit the Knights, 9-7, the scrappy visitors outhustled the hosts in snapping Ratliff’s six-game winning streak.

Ratliff went six innings surrendering six runs on six hits, three walks and hit a batter against eight strikeouts.

Ratliff’s mound counterpart, Creekside senior southpaw Michael Gray, wiggled out of a bases-loaded situation in the first inning.

Gray stranded five more Leopard runners across the next five frames. Gray, who was charged with both Hernando runs (both earned), issued two walks and one wild pitch while fanning a game-high eight batters.

Right-hander Matt Barrington faced four batters and notched two strikeouts in the final frame to preserve the upset victory.

Though HHS could not reward 18th-year skipper Tims Sims with his second Final Four appearance in three seasons, three Leopard seniors went down swinging.

The Leopards’ “Big Three” featuring Christian Arroyo, Brandon Lawson and Jake Johnson each rapped two hits.

Johnson finished 2-for-4 in his final home game to close out his third season at .317.

Johnson, who finished second on the club in runs batted in to Arroyo, 35-25, closed out his Leopard career with 76 hits in 67 games for a robust .394 average.

Lawson, who walked and struck out in his first two at-bats, drilled back-to-back singles in the fifth and seventh to finish 2-for-3.

Lawson’s RBI single in the seventh off Barrington knocked in Arroyo for Hernando’s second run, narrowing what was a 7-1 deficit.

Afterward, Lawson made no excuses.

“They (Creekside) just outplayed us. They put the ball in play,” declared the 18-year-old Lawson, who replaced Kyle Kilbourne in the seventh to get the final two outs.

On the game’s difference, “In the first inning we had our chances and things didn’t work out,” recalled Lawson. “Give Creekside credit, they just kept battling.”

On the Final Four semifinal, “I wish Creekside all the luck in the world. They deserve to be there,” said Lawson, who finished a sterling season on the mound with a school record 11-0 won-lost mark and 126 strikeouts against nine free passes in 77 2/3 innings. “They had a lot of energy tonight.

“Normally, when you put the ball in play you have a chance and their pitcher didn’t throw hard, but he kept us off-balance all night. It was like he was pitching us backwards.”

As far as regrets, “I do regret not giving my all a couple times; that hurt the team,” explained Lawson, who finished hitting .359 on the season and .339 across his two-year Leopard career. “I learned to be a better leader. They deserved that from me. No matter what happened tonight, we had a great year. For a lot of us, our high school careers come to an end. “

Like Lawson, Arroyo was staggered with Friday night’s final results.

“This hurts bad, read bad,” pointed out the 17-year-old Arroyo, who scored both Hernando runs besides finishing 2-for-3 plus a walk. “This is sad. I least I made it to three Elite Eight games. Now it’s time to become a man.”

At Hernando, Arroyo capped a season where he led the club in practically every offensive category: games played (30), at-bats (105), runs (42), hits (55), extra-base hits (27), doubles (13), homers (11), RBI (35) and batting average (.524).

He departs the Bell Avenue campus for the University of Florida campus – if he doesn’t get drafted too high – with 102 hits in 235 at-bats for a sterling .434 career average.

“I have to thank my coaches; I owe them so much,” pointed out Arroyo.

On his take on the game’s difference, “We all wanted this just as much as Creekside did,” he said. “I thought they just outhustled us. They did the things you’re supposed to do to win: put the ball in play, and don’t make errors (converting 25-of-25 chances while Hernando committed a game-high three errors).

“I’m not going to sit here and make excuses,” he added. “A lot of Creekside’s guys are back next year. I hope they win the state championship. That means we lost to the best. They’re a real scrappy bunch.”

In dissecting Gray’s outstanding performance, Arroyo said, “You look at them and they don’t have a lot of tools, but their pitcher throws 80 and spots his pitches; that’s how you win. I’m like everybody else, you’ve got to tip your cap to them and just move on.”

By the Numbers: Hernando’s Big Three

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO

Arroyo, Christian (2011-13)


2011 18 45 20 21 02 0 3 15 .467

2012 29 85 25 26 08 1 1 16 .306

2013 30 105 42 55 13 3 11 35 .524

TOT 77 235 87 102 23 4 15 66 .434

Johnson, Jake (2011-13)


2011 13 38 15 19 7 0 3 11 .500

2012 24 73 21 31 8 0 2 22 .425

2013 30 82 14 26 8 0 2 25 .317

TOT 67 193 50 76 23 0 7 58 .394

Lawson, Brandon (2012-13)


2012 29 87 17 28 7 0 3 21 .322

2013 29 78 11 28 2 0 1 13 .359

TOT 58 165 28 56 9 0 4 34 .339

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