BROOKSVILLE — Hernando coach Dwayne Mobley hasn’t brought up last year’s playoff letdown against Gainesville.
He hasn’t needed to. The Leopards have been talking and thinking about that defeat since spring practices began.
“That’s a heartbreaker,” senior athlete Tyrail Hawkins said.
Friday the Leopards (6-4) have a chance to break some Hurricane hearts when they travel to No. 1 Gainesville (10-0) for a rematch in the Class 6A region quarterfinals.
Hernando players and coaches say the team’s best shot at revenge comes with learning from two of the mistakes that cost them last fall — lack of effort and discipline.
The Leopards had several chances to seal last year’s home victory. Malcolm Hudson, now at Army, made a diving interception deep at the Gainesville 15 with three minutes left.
“I pretty much thought the game was over,” LB/WR K.D. Hagood said.
But a personal foul pushed Hernando out of field-goal range. The Leopards couldn’t secure a first down that would have run out the clock, so Gainesville had one more shot.
Similar mental mistakes have plagued the Leopards this fall. Sunlake scored its only touchdown when Hernando had a few of its starters on the bench for discipline reasons. Two personal fouls set up Nature Coast’s only score in Hernando’s 14-7 win and could be costly against a stacked Gainesville lineup.
“We started off, everybody was kind of thinking they wanna do what they all wanna do,” defensive end Robert Hill Bronson said. “Now we realize the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture includes the other lesson from last year’s collapse — playing until the final buzzer.
Gainesville took the ball at its own 15 with 1:22 left, and the Leopards came up with a sack they thought could seal the game, again. Hernando relented — and the Hurricanes answered with three short passes and a 32-yard touchdown pass to current USF freshman Chris Bivins to end a 91-yard, 42-second drive and steal a 20-14 win.
“It happened so quick,” said Mobley, who watched as a spectator.
The frustration continued to simmer after the final buzzer sounded.
Gainesville knocked off a Sunlake team the Leopards had already beaten the next week and hung with Armwood in a 17-14 loss. If Hernando had closed out its game, Bronson said, maybe it could have upset the Hawks and made it to state.
“Thinking about that, it makes me sick to my stomach,” he said.
And Friday, after a year of waiting, he and his teammates have a chance to do something about it.
Gainesville is one of the state’s top teams in any class. A handful of players hold college offers, including WR Chris Thompson (Florida commit), four-star junior RB Tony James and senior RB Raphael Webb, who rushed for two scores in last year’s game.
But Hernando has started to mesh after an 0-3 start. Since district play began, the Leopards’ defense —- led by Missouri commit Darren Hambrick — has allowed more than 13 points only once, against county rival Springstead. Bronson has averaged more than a sack per game in his past four contests, and LB/RB Jeremiah Jackson has racked up 44 tackles and three touchdowns in his past three games.
An offensive line that seemed leaky early has also improved. Better blocking and more knowledge of assignments helped Hawkins average 19 yards per carry in a win over Mitchell in the regular-season finale.
“We’ve got heart,” said Hawkins, a Division-I prospect. “Now we know late in games, an interception, that doesn’t seal the game. We’ve gotta play every down.”
And avoid making the same mistakes from last fall for a different result in 2012.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.