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BROOKSVILLE — After last week’s disappointing defeat to Springstead punctured Hernando’s hopes of a second consecutive district title, the Leopards needed a quick recovery and a reminder of what has fueled their recent renaissance — hard hitting and a swarming defense.
Hernando responded Friday night with a reignited passion and bone-jarring hits in a comeback 14-7 win over rival Nature Coast. The victory clinched the Leopards’ third consecutive playoff appearance and washed away any lingering effects from last week’s loss.
“I think it was a wake-up for us,” Hernando linebacker/fullback Jeremiah Jackson said. “We need to get back to the old Hernando.”
The old Hernando (5-4, 5-1) is a team of speedy runners and bruising hitters that controlled Friday’s must-win game for Nature Coast (5-4, 4-2). The Leopards allowed only two first downs in the first half — and one of those came on a pair of costly personal fouls. Those penalties pushed the Sharks deep into Hernando territory and allowed them to take a 7-0 lead with a 3-yard touchdown rush by senior running back Matt Breida.
But Breida and the Sharks couldn’t get much offense after that. Breida — the Division I recruit and Tampa Bay’s No. 2 rusher — mustered only 61 yards before leaving the game after a helmet-to-helmet hit in the third quarter. He said after the contest that he was fine, and Sharks coach Charles Liggett said he’ll be re-evaluated before next week’s game.
Hernando started its comeback immediately after allowing its only score. Jackson recovered a fumble to turn the game’s momentum for good.
“When the momentum switched,” Liggett said, “it just never came back.”
The Leopards scored two series later, thanks to a crucial, 50-yard third-and-long halfback pass from Tyrail Hawkins to KD Hagood. That and a 30-yard rush by Quentin Adams set up Jackson’s fourth-down, 1-yard rush that tied the game.
Hernando took the lead late in the third quarter when Hawkins finally broke loose. The Division I athlete took a short slant pass from quarterback Ra’shaad Hart and darted 72 yards into the end zone for his eighth touchdown of the season and the go-ahead score.
“Ra’shaad threw a perfect pass,” Hawkins said. “I just turned upfield and put the burners on.”
The Leopards’ defense made sure NCT couldn’t come back. Hernando tallied six sacks — two by Jackson, three by Robert Hill Bronson and one by Missouri commit Darren Hambrick — to stay in front. The Sharks gained only 114 total yards and tallied only four plays of at least 10 yards.
“They wanted it more, and they played hard,” first-year Leopards coach Dwayne Mobley said of his team. “They didn’t give up.”
NCT had two final last-gasp chances, after Joey Berrios’ fumble recovery and defensive stop in the closing minutes. But Troy Hambrick intercepted a pass deep in his own territory with nine seconds left to send the Leopards back to the playoffs for the fourth time since 2005.
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.