GREEN COVE SPRINGS — Hernando’s quest to add a second state championship to their 1967 crown came to an end Friday night, as the Leopards (18-11) lost 4-2 to host Clay (21-9) in a Class 5A region final.
The Blue Devils were powered by ace pitcher Hunter Alexander, who hurled a 94-pitch complete game and helped seal the victory with a home run to lead off the bottom of the sixth.
Leopards coach Tim Sims was impressed by Alexander.
“He had a great night for them, and then he had that add-on run that ended up being huge in the bottom of the sixth,” Sims said. “Good ball club, very athletic bunch. Give credit to the boys at Clay.”
Hernando starting pitcher Trae Ratliff struck out seven and held Clay hitless in the first three innings, but ran into trouble in the fourth.
First, Clay catcher Dakota Higdon reached base on a dropped third strike with one out. Jake Frisosky then singled after a 14-pitch at-bat, and Andy Toelken’s single scored pinch-runner Jacob Turner with the game’s first run.
Clay piled on in the fifth, aided by three Leopard errors. The last, a wild throw on a potential inning-ending double play, allowed both Turner and Luke Suchon to score as the Blue Devils extended their advantage to 3-0.
Hernando fought back in the sixth, scoring two runs in a rally that started with a double by Ratliff. Christian Arroyo drove in Andrew Zabriskie with a single and Brandon Lawson cut the lead to one with a sacrifice fly. But Clay shortstop Dane Dunning made a fine play in the hole to field a sharp grounder by Brooks Timmons that ended the inning.
Alexander gave the Blue Devils a key insurance run in the bottom of the inning, driving a 3-2 pitch from reliever Cody Gillis over the leftfield fence.
The Leopards’ last chance came in the seventh, when Rich Wilkes and Cody Singer drew walks against a tiring Alexander. With two outs, Gemmiti hit a hard line drive into left center, but Toelken chased it down to end the game.
Sims recognized the lessons his players have learned over the season.
“It’s learning how to deal with it on and off the field, and that’s the main thing,” he said. “It’s a teaching moment, and we’ll look at it that way and move on.”