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Tuesday, Mar 03, 2015

Regional final focus lies inside the circle

BY TONY CASTRO Hernando Today correspondent Hernando Today correspondent

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Hernando High’s Lady Leopards (22-7), the Class 5A, District 7 champions, have focused on one goal all season – reaching the FHSAA’s 26th annual Final Four beginning Wednesday at the Vero Beach Sports Village.

Standing in the way might be the finest team the Purple and Gold have faced all season – the 5A-5 champion St. Augustine-Creekside Lady Knights (25-2).

The 5A-Region II final pits two teams squaring off tonight at 7 p.m. at Brooksville’s Tom Varn Park.

The HHS/CHS winner will face Friday’s survivor between Englewood-Lemon Bay at Plantation-American Heritage in the state semifinals.

The Broward county-based Lady Patriots are incidentally the defending 5A state champions. Since 2004, AHS has collected five state championship trophies.

There’s no cloak and dagger on how the St. Johns County crew will arrive in Brooksville.

Second-year CHS mentor Sabrina Hartsell’s club finished 23-4 last spring and were knocked out in the regional quarterfinals by defending state runner-up Belleview.

Creekside, which arrives with an 18-member roster, features 10 seniors.

Offensively, the Lady Knights will swing the lumber behind a ridiculously high .394 team batting average. CHS arrives averaging seven runs per game behind 22 homers.

The leading mashers are all seniors. Victoria “Vic” Paddis is a Florida State University signee. Of Paddis’ 33 hits, 13 have been doubles and one a triple, plus an eye-popping eight homers along a home field that features 210-foot deep fences.

Paddis, who has knocked in 21 runs, has tallied 26 and arrives hitting .434. She’s far from alone as an offensive juggernaut.

Amanda McCullough arrives hitting .447 with 24 RBI, 25 runs scored, 15 sacrifice bunts and is a perfect 7-for-7 in stolen bases.

Colleen Darragh is hitting .390 with 24 runs and 24 RBI, while another thumper is Ali French, who’s hitting .427, with a team-high 27 RBI to compliment her 21 runs.

On the hill, senior Rachel Pence is the real deal. Pence (14-1) has fanned 143 batters in 103 innings against 18 walks. That works out to a staggering 8-to-1 ratio in strikeouts to walks.

The Lady Knights are seeking redemption for last year’s loss to Belleview, which got knocked out this year in the district semifinals.

“Honestly, we have 18 athletes who fell short last year,” admits Hartsell, who is 48-6 lifetime and has never faced Hernando. “Losing last year to Belleview was heartbreaking for this group. It’s been our goal to go as far as we can.”

On Hernando, “We know a little bit about Hernando; we know they have good pitching and they’re solid all the way around,” said Hartsell. “They do have some speedsters and they have some power in their lineup.”

On the keys to the game, “What we need to do is make sure our defense is tight and we go in focused with a goal in the end,” added Hartsell. “We have to keep our bats and move the runners around.”

On the importance of denting the scoreboard early, “It’s extremely important to score early,” noted Hartsell, who graduated from University of North Florida in Jacksonville. “I tell my athletes any time you’re the visiting team it’s your time to jump on and set the tone.”

Hernando is attempting to earn its third-ever regional crown in three tries. Hall of Famer Ernie Chatman guided HHS to back-to-back regional titles in 2000-01.

Interestingly, when Chatman held the reins for Hernando Christian Academy, the Lady Lions reached the FHSAA Final Four in 2009-10. The starting pitcher for HCA was current HHS junior Courtney Riddle. Riddle hurled for the Lady Lions as a seventh- and eighth-grader.

Despite CHS hitting .394 and the Lady Leopards hitting .357 in the postseason, Riddle is expected to lock up with Pence in a pitcher’s duel.

Riddle has been touched up for six runs (three earned) across 28 postseason frames – holding the opposition to a collective .170 batting average.

Until Tuesday night in West Pasco County – when the HHS defense committed five errors – it had played exceptionally well behind Riddle.

Fans have asked if there would there be any carryover for Friday.

“What we’re proud of is our team’s resiliency,” said HHS skipper Kevin Bittinger. “We’ve been pretty solid defensively all year; with that being said, from time to time you’re going to have one of those type of games. The girls know what they’re capable of.”

On what HHS could expect from Pence, “She’s a pitcher who has a lot of movement,” noted Bittinger. “She’s not necessarily the fastest pitcher out there. We have to be ready to swing the bats like we have all season.”

On which HHS team will show up Friday at Tom Varn Park, “I told the girls look at all the things we did to shoot ourselves in the foot and we didn’t trip over,” recalled Bittinger. “That character lies at the heart of this team. The crowd has been thinned out. There are only eight of us left (in 5A). The girls are ready to make up for their last game.”

On whether playing at Tom Varn would be defined as a home-field edge, “All I know is we won’t be traveling for three-plus hours,” noted Bittinger. “Creekside didn’t get here with smoke and mirrors. I’m not sure it’s a disadvantage for them playing on the road.

“For us, we like the community support and most of our kids have played here for 10-12 years,” Bittinger said.

On whether the Lady Leopards brutal regular-season schedule facing five district champions will pay off Friday, “We’ve played a ton of good people to get here. Losing to River Ridge (1-0) and beating a good Tavares team twice has helped us prepare for this moment.

“We certainly put the schedule together for a reason. The reason was to play quality teams like Creekside in this environment,” said Bittinger, who is 121-87 lifetime. “We certainly haven’t run away from anybody; if anything we’ve gone directly at some of the best teams.”

Like many fans, Bittinger believes which pitcher performs the best inside the circle will lead her team to victory.

“Both teams are alike in the sense that we both have pretty good hitting teams,” he said. “And we both have pitchers who don’t necessarily try to overpower anybody. The pitcher who makes the least amount of mistakes, I believe will help lead their team to victory.”

The game will be carried live across WWJB (AM) 1450 and 103.9 FM, and streamed online across Pregame show is set for 6:15 p.m.

At a Glance

What – Class 5A, Region II final

Who –St. Augustine-Creekside Lady Knights (25-2, 5A-5 champions) at Hernando Lady Leopards (22-7, 5A-7 champions).

Where – Tom Varn Park

When – Today at 7 p.m.

At Stake – Region II champion will face the survivor of Englewood-Lemon Bay at Plantation-American Heritage on Wednesday in the 5A state semifinals at the Vero Beach Sports Village.

By the Numbers: Hernando vs. Creekside

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO


No. of regional appearances 3 12

No. of regional championships 0 2

No. of state appearances 0 2

No. of state championships 0 0

Regional W-L Record 2-1 11-11

By the Numbers: Lady Leopards’ Postseason Batting Averages

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO


Sims 4 13 8* 11* 0 0 0 1 .846*

Riddle 4 14* 0 8 3* 0 0 7* .571

McDaniel 4 12 3 5 1 0 0 3 .417

Solovitch 4 14 2 5 1 0 0 6 .357

Lane 4 14 5 4 0 1* 0 2 .286

Lewis 4 12 1 3 1 0 0 3 .250

Harvey 4 9 2 2 0 0 0 1 .222

Cannon 4 13 2 2 0 0 0 0 .154

Mobley 4 11 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000

Patrick 4 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 .000

Hunter 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000

TOTALS 4 112 25 40 6 1 0 23 .357

OPPOSITION 4 100 6 17 1 0 1 5 .170

* Denotes team leader

By the Numbers: Lady Leopards’ Postseason Defensive Stats

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO


Lane 12 7 0* 19 1.000*

Riddle 2 11 0* 13 1.000*

Sims 6 2 0* 8 1.000*

Lewis 4 0 0* 4 1.000*

Cannon 4 0 1 5 .800

Hunter 43* 0 1 44* .977

Solovitch 2 12* 1 15 .933

Harvey 5 9 2 16 .875

McDaniel 6 5 4 15 .733

TOTALS 84 45 9 138 .935

OPPOSITION 77 35 9 121 .926

* Denotes team leader

By the Numbers: Lady Leopards’ Postseason Pitching Stats

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO


Riddle 4 4 4 28.0 17 6 3 07 13 1 4 0 0.75

OPP 5 4 2 25.2 40 25 19 09 11 0 0 4 5.18

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