Column: Hernando's current success sparks blast from the past



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Fri. May 20, 2011 | John C. Cotey | Email

Column: Hernando's current success sparks blast from the past

Tom Varn Jr. is tickled to be looking through an old yearbook, even as the finale of American Idol blares in the background.

A memory is jostled free with every score, a moment is refreshed with each picture.

“Great times,” he says.

There’s Charley …and Buster …Grover …and Sammy.

He stops for a moment — Haley just got voted off on Idol, he says; oh well, he’s recording it — and continues.

At Nature Coast, where he is an assistant principal, they call him Tom and know him as the guy whose name is on a park and a baseball field in town.

“I have to explain to them that’s my dad,” he laughs.

In the heart of Brooksville, those who know him best still call him Bubba.

Bubba Varn, all-state second baseman, Hernando baseball, 1967.

State champion.

He flips another page. “Oh, and here’s one other thing …”

Bubba Varn is 15 years old all over again.
• • •
The Hernando baseball team is a great story. Monday in Port St. Lucie, the Leopards will take on longtime nemesis Jesuit in the Class 4A state semifinals.

They will be written about in newspapers, blogged about, tweeted about, and if they make the final, the game will be on TV.

Boys will become men.

And men, like Bubba, will become boys.


“It’s still special. Every time I think about it, I smile,” he says.

It has been a long time. Bubba  had no idea, when the last out was made and fans stormed Emerson Field and the Leopards hoisted his dad on their shoulders and paraded him about, that the feeling or anything quite like it would not return for 44 years.

It’s not the longest streak ever.

Crystal River once waited 56 years between visits to the baseball semifinals. Fort Meade ended a 61-year drought when it returned in 2004.

And shoot, Williston won a state title in 1923 — the same year the New York Yankees won their first World Series — and haven’t even made it to the second round of the playoffs since.

In 1967, the city had to hustle to finish Emerson Field, just so Brooksville could host. It barely got it finished in time, putting the lights up the week of the game.

In 1967, local businesses showed their support on marquees, there were banners on the side of the bank and all down Main Street.

“It was a big deal back then,” said Buster McGee, an all-state shortstop on that team. “It was everything.”

In 1967, it was an event.

“A big show for a little town,” Bubba recalled.

Monday, the Leopards will play in a mostly empty minor-league baseball stadium almost 200 miles across the state.
Bubba wants to go watch.
• • •
Bubba says there were a lot of great moments in 1967, many of them game savers, but none stands out more than the one Charley Barnett made in the state semifinals against Jay.

The senior catcher was backing up a play at first in a tied game, which was a good thing because a throw sailed past first base.
He scooped it up and noticed the runner rounding third and heading home.

No one was there, so Barnett took off.

“He dove through the air and tagged him out,” Bubba said. “In full gear, he beat him home. It was crazy. That’s the play everyone talks about when we talk about that year.”

Bubba has been talking about that year a lot this week, hooking up on the phone with old teammates and friends.

They talk about how the state quarterfinal against Sebring was rained out twice, before Hernando finally won 2-1.

Bubba found out just this week that in 1967, the Leopards lost to Turkey Creek. He thought they won that game, but now recalls Grover Ellis hitting two home runs but being called out on one of them because an ump said he threw his helmet, but it just fell off as he rounded third.

Five starters hit over .400 that year. The defense was impenetrable, the whole infield nominated for the all-state team.
Sammy Sharp and Kenny Frazier were unhittable on the mound, evidenced by the 2-1, 2-1 and 2-0 playoff victories.

“It was a coach’s nightmare,” McGee said.
• • •
Bubba says you can feel the energy around town. People are talking.

While it may not be as homespun as back in 1967, there’s excitement.

“Everybody’s pulling for them,” he said.

Bubba sounds as if he’d like to thank each and every Leopard — for making history and reminding him of his.
Thanks for the memories, guys.

“I remember after the game, my dad was asked by a reporter what the best play of the whole game was, and he said there was only one play that I remember — the pop fly to the pitcher,” Bubba said. “That’s the one that ended the game and won the state championship.”

With the ball and title secure in Sharp’s mitt, the players rushed over to his dad, hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him around the field.

Bubba Varn is 15 years old all over again.

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@sptimes.com

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