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Tuesday, Mar 31, 2015

Old tradition rekindled over break


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For 15 years, the prep baseball season in Hernando County was ushered in by the Tom Varn Invitational.

Named after the long-time Hernando High coach, who passed away a few months after the first tournament in 1993, the event, held by the Leopards but hosted at multiple schools, ran at the start of every season through 2007.

Scheduling conflicts began to shrink the field and eventually caused the tournament's demise, but this week over spring break the Varn Invite returns - almost.

Officially, the first Pasco-Hernando Farm Bureau Insurance Classic kicks off Monday at four schools: Central, Hernando, Sunlake and Weeki Wachee.

A total of 16 teams will participate over three days, with the championship game scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m. at a site to be determined.

Nature Coast and Springstead will also take part, putting all five county public schools in the mix along with Pasco County-based Bishop McLaughlin, Fivay, Gulf, Land O' Lakes, Mitchell, Pasco, Ridgewood, Wesley Chapel, Wiregrass Ranch and Zephyrhills along with co-host Sunlake.

The name and point in the season may have changed, but the set up remains similar to the old Varn tourney.

"Everybody was talking about getting the Tom Varn back going," Hernando head coach Tim Sims said. "This year it worked out for us to put it back together and have our two counties play it, and stay close to home over spring break. Everybody stepped forward and we said, 'We can do it.'"

Monday features two games, at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., at each venue. At the Leopards' Emerson Field, Nature Coast (6-5) takes on Land O' Lakes followed by Hernando versus Fivay.

Over at Central, the Bears (8-5) play Gulf, then Mitchell battles Bishop McLaughlin. Springstead (5-5) against Zephyrhills precedes the host Hornets (0-11) squaring off with Wiregrass Ranch at Weeki Wachee.

Finally at Sunlake, the Seahawks face Wesley Chapel before Pasco tangles with Ridgewood.

From there, the pairings will be determined by results.

"We've got some traditional matchups you don't see on a regular basis and haven't seen in a while," Sims said. "The field is a solid field. I don't know if you can say there's any clear-cut favorite. I guess the team with the deepest pitching staff. I don't know if there's a clear-cut favorite in that scenario."

The Leopards (11-1) can certainly go in with high expectations. After graduating eight starters, Hernando figured to be in rebuilding mode. It hasn't worked out that way.

Thanks to a pitching staff that has permitted a total of 22 runs, the Leopards have overcome a sluggish offense posting a .231 team batting average and one home run prior to Friday's outburst in a 12-1 win over Wesley Chapel.

Before that game, seniors Kyle Kilbourne and David Flowers, along with sophomore Daniel Miller, had three wins apiece and combined had given up five earned runs in 54.1 innings, for a 0.64 earned run average.

Most importantly, the Leopards are 9-0 in Class 5A, District 7 action. The other six teams in that district - Central, Nature Coast, Pasco, Weeki Wachee, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills - are also in this tournament.

"In our district, we've been fortunate we've had some breaks go our way," Sims said. "We going in it and getting a little bit of a tournament-type mentality set up, and see how our group responds.

"Winning it would be considered a success. But right now with us on a team basis, we're looking to get a little better consistency at the plate."

Looking outside the 5A-7 clubs, Sims called Mitchell and Wiregrass Ranch "the Vegas picks," and looks forward to a rare meeting with Fivay (7-4). The Falcons, in their fourth season, have seen the Leopards once, winning 4-1 in 2012.

The bottom line, though, seems to developing depth and building momentum toward the postseason next month.

"A lot of teams will have JV arms up. I know we will. We'll put their feet to the fire and see how they respond," Sims said.

"It gets you headed in the right direction heading into the playoffs, too. If you get to the championship game, those two teams are usually ready to go."

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At a Glance

What - Pasco-Hernando Farm Bureau Insurance Baseball Classic

Who - Bishop McLaughlin, Central, Fivay, Gulf, Hernando, Land O' Lakes, Mitchell, Nature Coast, Pasco, Ridgewood, Springstead, Sunlake, Weeki Wachee, Wesley Chapel, Wiregrass Ranch and Zephyrhills

Where - Games will be played at Central, Hernando, Sunlake and Weeki Wachee High

When - All teams play Monday through Wednesday, with the championship game scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m.

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