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‘Summer’ arrives just in time

Hernando Today correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: April 23, 2013 at 02:16 PM
BROOKSVILLE -

The sounds of revelry, elation and relief returned to Tom Varn Park at the conclusion of Friday night’s eight-inning Class 5A, District 7 final thriller captured by Hernando over defending district champion Tavares, 4-3.

“We gave it away,” explained Tavares’ third-year skipper and the Florida Athletic Coaches Association’s District 8 Coach of the Year Nikki Sauerbrey. “There are still a couple things we need to work on. This is a young team; they make young team mistakes – I’m still proud of them.”

“This is pretty sweet,” explained HHS’ eighth-year skipper Kevin Bittinger, who between girls basketball and softball savored his first district championship in 13 seasons. “Tonight makes you feel proud to be a Hernando Leopard.”

On what Coach Bittinger was most proud of, “I look at all these girls as one,” he said. “They’re all deserving. Hard work pays off and I feel this team is the hardest-working team I’ve ever had.”

On the game’s key details, “Credit belongs to Courtney (Riddle). She absolutely attacked the strike zone,” said Bittinger. “And what about Ashley (Sims)? Two of her relay throws from center helped us cut down two base runners – those were huge.”

On the overall effort, “This was a great ballgame. The third one-run game between these two teams,” noted Bittinger against the defending regional finalists. “It was a fun game to be a part of. I heard Gulf won, so we’ve got Pasco next. It’s a cliché, but we’ve got to take it one game at a time. We aren’t looking past anybody.”

The two teams’ third meeting was almost a carbon copy of the stunning 3-2 HHS come-from-behind triumph over the Lady Bulldogs March 20 in Brooksville.

This time, the Lady Leopards (20-7) broke out on top plating the first of three eventual unearned runs off a University of Iowa early verbal commit – sophomore Koral Smith.

Lady Leopard right-hander Courtney Riddle, who came in hitting a team-best .434, remained “en fuego” with a 3-for-4 effort at the plate.

Riddle opened the second inning with a sharp, sinking single into right field, but the Lady Bulldog right fielder, freshman Lauren Stendel, did not knock the ball down.

Instead, the ball rolled under her glove for a two-base error to the fence permitting Riddle to motor into third base.

After courtesy runner Nikki Patrick was inserted, Patrick promptly scored on the first of two run-producing singles by junior Summer Solovitch, 1-0 Lady Leopards.

The Lake County crew quickly countered in the third frame as Stendel reached on a rare muffed grounder by Solovitch. Junior Savannah Money sacrificed Stendel to second base.

THS senior center fielder and leadoff batter Jennifer Castiglione then skied a ball into left field that sophomore Sierra Cannon could not pick up in the bright evening sun. The ball harmlessly dropped in for a RBI double plating the first of two unearned runs off Riddle, 1-1.

Senior second baseman Cynthia Cuevas followed with a sharp single to right-center.

Here, Sauerbrey rolled the dice sending Castiglione to the plate. Only problem: the 2012 All-County center fielder Sims whistled a perfect relay back to All-County receiver Megan Lane for the second out.

Riddle extricated herself by enticing Tavares’ dangerous No. 3 hitter, Brielle Dougherty, to pop out to end the inning.

HHS, which converted 31-of-31 defensive chances Thursday night against Nature Coast, followed up with a 38-of-40 effort (95 percent).

Earlier in the second inning, Lane threw out Tessa Whitehouse in an attempted steal of second base by three feet.

In the fifth, Riddle helped herself snow-coning a line drive by THS catcher Charlene Nieves.

But in the fifth, Castiglione reached when first sacker Darrian Hunter muffed a ground ball. Castiglione immediately stole second base.

Cuevas, who finished with a solid 3-for-4 for the visitors, looped a single to right pushing Castiglione to third before Dougherty flied out.

With two runners still in scoring position and first base open, Riddle opted to walk Smith to load the sacks.

Sophomore first baseman Stephanie Moorhead crossed up the Lady Leopards with a clutch two-run single up the middle, 3-1 Lady Bulldogs.

Matters could have been worse for the hosts had it not been for a perfect relay from Sims to Lane back to Danielle Harvey at third base to cut down Smith.

Whitehead struck out looking – one of three Riddle punch-outs in her county-high 23rd complete game – for the final out.

Despite going into the bottom of sixth with a two-run cushion, Smith immediately ran into trouble.

Lane coaxed the game’s only free pass off Smith to open the critical two-run uprising.

Sims, who arrived hitting.420 after a perfect 4-for-4 effort against NCT, reached on the second of her three hits Friday against Smith.

The threat of a steal forced Nieves into a hurried and errant throw into right-center as Lane easily scored.

Red-hot Tana McDaniel (.375) became Smith’s game-high seventh strikeout victim fanning for the third time.

With one out, the Hernando Today Player of the Year candidate Riddle followed by lining a 1-0 Smith offering up the middle plating Sims for her county-leading 37th run batted in, 3-3.

The inning ended abruptly when Solovitch hit into an inning-ending double play.

Both teams stranded a runner in the seventh, pushing the game into extra innings.

In the eighth, Cuevas looped a leadoff single to right – her team’s seventh hit off Riddle, before the Lady Leopard junior retired the heart of the Tavares lineup – its critical No. 3, 4, 5 batters - in order.

With one out in the bottom of the eighth, the scorching-hot Sims reached on a seeing-eye single between shortstop and third.

McDaniel, who had been struggling against Smith, followed with a textbook bunt single. Riddle followed by flaring her third hit to load the bases.

Just like a month earlier against Tavares, Solovitch (.307) emptied the bases with a shot into right-center. Though three Lady Leopards crossed the plate, officially the only run that mattered was Sims.

The district title snapped a school record nine-year drought since Doug Rogers’ Lady Leopards solved Pasco at Tom Varn Park on April 29, 2004, 4-3.

With the win and Gulf’s 8-1 thrashing of Pasco in Zephyrhills, HHS will host a 5A-Region II quarterfinal Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Tom Varn Park.

The HHS players basked in the school’s county-best ninth fast-pitch softball district title since 1990 and the county’s 21st overall.

“I thought the key was we hit the ball a lot better this time,” described the 17-year-old Riddle. “We know how tough Koral (Smith) is, but we did a much better job adjusting to her pitches.”

On reviewing her performance, “I thought I pitched much better than I did the last time,” Riddle said. “They were mostly hitting my mistakes.”

On the significance of the team’s first district title in a decade, “I think tonight’s win is huge,” declared Riddle. “On Tuesday it doesn’t matter who we play as long as we play our ball.”

On rewinding the bases-loaded situation in the eighth, “I thought ‘It’s my time,’ recalled the 16-year-old Solovitch. “I knew I had a good hit coming.”

“This was the first year in a while that our talent hasn’t let us down,” described Solovitch. “Even tonight when I messed up the one ground ball, I didn’t get down, I tried to make up for it.

“I thought Courtney (Riddle) was right on the spot. She’s been really pitching well lately.”

“After grounding out in my first at-bat, I was pretty upset with myself,” recalled the 17-year-old Sims, who was 7-of-8 at the plate in districts. “I figured I just had to make up for it. I know Koral pretty well. I was thinking, ‘What would she throw to try to get a slapper out?’

“On my last at-bat, all I wanted was to find a hole and get on,” recalled Sims. “Boy was Summer’s gap shot sweet. It was so awesome to win that way.

“I’m so happy for Coach B.,” added Sims. “I think we’re finally showing what we’re all capable of doing. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing Tavares again – to me they’re just a great challenge.”

Hernando 4, Tavares 3 (8 Innings)

123 456 78 R H E

TAV 001 002 00– 3 7 3

HER 010 002 01 – 4 9 2

TAV – Smith and Nieves.

HER – Riddle and Lane.

W – Riddle (20-6). L – Smith (8-6).

2B – Castiglione (TAV).

Records – Tavares (19-7), Hernando (20-7).

Class 5A, District 7 Girls Softball Tourney Recap

at Brooksville’s Tom Varn Park

04-16: Quarterfinals

NCT 9, Crystal River 2

Dunnellon 5, Eustis 4 (8 Innings)

04-18: Semifinals

Tavares 3, Dunnellon 1

Hernando 6, NCT 0

04-19: Championship

Hernando 4, Tavares 3 (8 Inns.)

04-24:

Class 5A, Region II Quarterfinals

Pasco (17-11) vs. Hernando (20-7) at Brooksville’s Tom Varn Park, 7 p.m.

Tavares (19-7) at Gulf (14-13), 7 p.m.

All-Time Hernando County Girls

Fast-Pitch Softball District

Championships (21)

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO

Hernando High (9)

Year District Record Head Coach Category

1990 3A-6 23-4 Mike Majeske Fast Pitch

1991 3A-4 23-3 Brent Gaustad Fast Pitch

1993 3A-4 20-2 Brent Gaustad Fast Pitch

1998 4A-8 21-10 Ernie Chatman Fast Pitch

1999 4A-8 26-6 Ernie Chatman Fast Pitch

2000 3A-6* 27-4 Ernie Chatman Fast Pitch

2001 3A-6* 30-4 Ernie Chatman Fast Pitch

2004 3A-6 19-6 Doug Rogers Fast Pitch

2013 5A-7 20-7 Kevin Bittinger Fast Pitch

Hernando Christian Academy (7)

Year District Record Head Coach Category

2004 1A-5 8-9 Sue Seidelmann Fast Pitch

2005 1A-5 10-4 Sue Seidelmann Fast Pitch

2006 1A-8 18-5 Sue Seidelmann Fast Pitch

2007 1A-8 17-3 Sue Murphy Fast Pitch

2008 1A-6 13-6 Sue Murphy Fast Pitch

2009 1A-6* 22-6 Ernie Chatman Fast Pitch

2010 1A-8 21-5 Ernie Chatman Fast Pitch

F.W. Springstead High (4)

Year District Record Head Coach Category

2002 4A-7 19-7 Carmine Rufa Fast Pitch

2003 4A-7 20-3 Craig Swartout Fast Pitch

2011 5A-7 21-3 Craig Swartout Fast Pitch

2012 6A-6 23-5 Craig Swartout Fast Pitch

Central High (1)

Year District Record Head Coach Category

2001 4A-6 17-9 Benny Martinez Fast Pitch

* Denotes Final Four appearance

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