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BROOKSVILLE — If you’re looking for disheartened thoughts or downcast eyes around 0-3 Hernando, you won’t find them.
Even though the Leopards have gone from district champions last year to Hernando County’s only winless program this fall. Even though they have been outscored by 60 points and have more fumbles than touchdowns.
Even though, heading into tonight’s Class 6A, District 6 opener against Land O’Lakes (1-1), Hernando is suffering through its first three-game losing streak in a season since 2008.
“These guys know the season really starts now,” first-year coach Dwayne Mobley said.
They know it from experience. Through three games last fall, Hernando was 1-2, beating East Ridge on the road before a home loss to South Lake and a deflating 55-28 defeat by South Sumter.
The Leopards won their next seven games, sweeping district foes by a combined score of 297-56 to claim their first district title since 1997. That run began with a hard-fought 28-7 win at Land O’Lakes after Hernando held the Gators to 169 yards of total offense.
Many of the top players who rallied from that rough start to secure back-to-back playoff appearances are back, like linebackers Darren Hambrick, Robert Hill Bronson and Jeremiah Jackson, and do-it-all senior Tyrail Hawkins.
“We’ve got confidence in ourselves,” Hambrick said. “We know that we’re the team everybody wants to beat.”
Aside from the confidence gained from last year’s playoff push, Hernando has other reasons to expect a school-record third consecutive postseason appearance, despite its winless start.
The Leopards’ losses have come against brutal competition, which means early losses in exchange for invaluable experience. South Sumter is ranked second in Class 4A. East Ridge reached the 7A region finals last year. Hernando earned a 21-7 preseason win over a Pasco team ranked second in 5A and lost in the spring to Clearwater Central Catholic, one of the top area teams in 3A.
“I think that it’s good that we played those tough games,” Mobley said. “It’s better than playing easy games and killing teams. Yes, we could be (3-0) right now. But then we step into the district with a little better competition and get killed.”
Although Hernando has received a boost from an influx of JV players and the emergence of two-way lineman Kei’von Dorsey, the Leopards’ lack of depth has been costly.
A flu bug spread through the locker room last week, so Hernando’s roster was limited to 31 players. LB/RB O’mar Hawkins was out with an ankle injury, and WR/S Dylan Bailey was also injured. Both practiced this week, though the Leopards will still be without LB John Bronson (shoulder injury), who recovered three fumbles and recorded 64 tackles as a freshman.
Land O’Lakes is banged up, too. Standout RB Harrison Wood (shoulder) — one of Pasco County’s top returning rushers with 789 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior — said he will likely miss tonight’s game but should return next week against Springstead.
Mental mistakes have doomed the Leopards so far. They committed 11 penalties against East Ridge. They fumbled four times (and lost three) against South Lake and committed three more turnovers against South Sumter. Hernando has more fumbles lost (eight) than touchdowns (seven).
“It’s coming from a lack of discipline,” Mobley said.
Hernando hopes those mistakes can be fixed, allowing one of the North Suncoast’s most talented groups to shine.
Hambrick and Hawkins have Division-I offers, and Jackson, a junior, is receiving interest from Miami and FSU. RB Quentin Adams had a breakout game last week (63 yards, one touchdown) and junior Ra’shaad Hart sparked the offense by switching back to quarterback against South Sumter.
“We have all the talent that we need on the team,” said Hart, who could see snaps at quarterback again this week. “All the speed.”
Now is the time to see if Hernando can put it all together and overcome another sluggish start to make a playoff run. Again.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.