BROOKSVILLE — Before Hernando began its quest for a third consecutive trip to the region finals, coach Tim Sims knew what to expect from his seniors. He knew what to expect from some role players.
He just didn’t know what would come from the junior star who helped launch his team to tonight’s Class 5A region semifinal at Tavares (15-12).
Right-hander Brandon Lawson was a talented wild card. He starred at Springstead as a freshman but sat out last season after transferring to Hernando.
“You really didn’t know how he was going to react when the lights were on,” Sims said. “Every game, he’s reacted more maturely than you expect a junior.”
That’s because the USF commit has grown up around the game. His dad was a pro prospect. His older brother, Dave, coached in college.
Lawson was one of Hernando County’s top players as a freshman, racking up a team-high 46 strikeouts and posting a 1.97 ERA for the Eagles during an honorable-mention all-North Suncoast season.
He had to take on a different role last spring: cheerleader. A late transfer to Hernando forced him to sit out his sophomore season during the Leopards’ run to the final four.
“It’s very hard to watch,” Lawson said. “I was heartbroken.”
But he learned from his time in the stands. He rested his arm, which helped his fastball velocity reach the low 90s. He watched seniors lead, which taught him how to be a team player in the dugout.
“If there’s a mental makeup that can handle it, it was Brandon’s,” Sims said. “He plays a lot of baseball. He eats and sleeps it.”
Lawson’s missing sophomore season didn’t deter scouts. He was an honorable mention selection for Perfect Game’s preseason underclassman All-America team. Missouri, Virginia Tech, UCF and others offered him a scholarship before he committed to USF in early January.
His presence is undeniable and extends beyond his 1.86 ERA and team-best 91 strikeouts. The Leopards are 9-3 in games with Lawson on the mound, including a 3-2 win over Tavares in March. He scattered four hits and two walks over a 10-strikeout complete game last week in Hernando’s 5-1 win over Ridgewood last week in the region quarterfinals.
The Leopards’ 8-7 record in games Lawson didn’t pitch features an 11-9 loss to the Bulldogs in the district title game.
Lawson’s bat has also been a welcome surprise for Hernando (17-10). Sims expected players like Brandon Gemmiti, UF commit Christian Arroyo and Jake Johnson to hit well, but Lawson has answered with 19 RBIs and a team-leading three home runs — including a monster two-run shot against Ridgewood.
“That’s why we’re here,” Sims said. “He’s a main contributor to that.”
Lawson’s bat might his biggest contribution tonight against Tavares in a rematch of the district title game. Sims said he wasn’t sure whether Lawson or junior Trae Ratliff would start on the mound.
Regardless, Lawson said he’s happy to be in a position to help his club in its playoff push this time.
“A lot of expectations are on us from the past two years,” Lawson said. “We’re just trying to show everyone that we can do it.”
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Admission is $7
5A: Hernando at Tavares, 7 p.m. Tuesday