BROOKSVILLE – Hernando High’s softball team has spent the past few weeks proving it belonged among the elite squads in the area.
On Friday, the Lady Leopards found themselves in the Elite Eight, hosting Eustis in a Class 5A, Region 2 final at Ernie Chatman Field at Tom Varn Stadium.
After Hernando staved off the Lady Panthers, ranked second in the Miracle Sports state poll in 5A, through four scoreless innings, the visitors busted things open in the fifth and sixth, pulling away for a 6-0 victory.
“It’s a tough lineup, man. They hit the ball top to bottom. They put the ball in play extremely well,” Hernando head coach Kevin Bittinger said. “The pitcher does a great job. She’s kind of deceptive, and that’s something Ali (Shenefield) has done for us all year.
“You tip your cap and congratulate them. They were the better team tonight and that’s what it takes. At this point in the season, you’re playing in a regional final, you know you’re going to play a tough team. This team’s got some great hitters, a great pitcher, and they showed that tonight.”
This one very nearly got away from the Lady Leopards (21-10) out of the gate. Eustis (25-1) started off the top of the first inning with singles by Leea Hanks and Tori Rodebaugh before a walk to Jaycie Michael loaded the bases with no outs.
But Shenefield wriggled out of trouble, inducing a grounder to third and a comebacker to her, both resulting in force plays at home. A strikeout ended the threat without a runner crossing the plate.
The Lady Panthers left a runner in scoring position in each of the next three innings, yet Hernando managed just two baserunners over the first six against Delaney Heaberlin. Ali Bronson was hit by a pitch in the bottom of the third, then was stranded at third. Kaylee Frascatore hit a hard liner off Heaberlin’s glove for a single with two outs in the fourth.
In the top of the fifth, the Lady Panthers finally broke through for three runs. Hanks singled and scored when Rodebaugh blooped a double just inside the line in shallow left field. Seriah Brokenborough doubled to left-center to drive in Rodebaugh, and Lexi Rodriguez’s pop-up to short right-center ticked off the second baseman’s glove for a single and a run batted in.
Hanks and Rodebaugh had back-to-back two-out doubles in the sixth, followed by a single by Michael and a double to deep left-center by Brokenborough, accounting for three more runs.
Hanks and Rodebaugh were the primary culprits for the Lady Panthers, going a combined 7-of-8 with three doubles, four runs scored and two RBI.
“We knew that coming in, that they were real quick. Great plate coverage; they hit inside, they hit outside. They’re good hitters,” Bittinger said. “You hope coming in that you can contain them. We knew it. Everything said, ‘Hey, those top two kids get it going, and they’ve got power through the lineup.’
“Ali pitched tough, and it just wasn’t our night. And I’m not taking anything away from them, that’s a great ball team. But we talked about when a team gets hot, a team gets streaky, how quick it can go away. And it just looked like we struggled off the bat seeing the ball. We feel like we’re a better hitting team than that. And that’s an excellent pitcher. Very deceptive, lot of movement, changed elevations. She had our number tonight.”
The Lady Leopards did manage to string together two hits plus a few more well-struck balls in the seventh. However, Heaberlin allowed just three hits and walked none, striking out 13.
As Eustis celebrated its regional championship and a trip to the Final Four on one side of the field, Hernando was left to reflect on what was still an impressive and somewhat surprising postseason run.
“I absolutely am so proud of this team,” Bittinger said. “We’re playing in a regional final, nobody said we could, nobody said we belong here. The girls gave max effort. We’re down 6-0 and we’re talking between innings, they believed they could come back and score seven.
“So they didn’t give up, they never gave up. That’s all you ask. That the team play hard and giving everything they got, and hope things go our way and they didn’t tonight.”
In the 6A-2 final over at Land O’ Lakes on Friday, Springstead lost to the Lady Gators in this round for the second year in a row, this time 2-0.
After losing 1-0 in 2016, the Lady Eagles (25-5) were again completely shut down offensively. Sophomore Callie Turner yielded two hits and four walks, striking out 15 for Land O’ Lakes (27-3).
Springstead senior Kama Woodall was equal to the task most of the way, as she gave up four hits and recorded eight strikeouts. But the Lady Gators scored twice in the bottom of the sixth, on a single by Ashley Smith and an error.
The Lady Eagles loaded the bases in the seventh, on a single by Woodall and two walks, though Turner worked out of the jam unscathed to end the game.
Follow Chris Bernhardt Jr. on Twitter @cpbernhardtjr.