Many coaches would have seen holes when they looked at a roster that lost four of its top talents from a 26-6, state semifinalist team.
Hernando coach Tim Sims saw potential.
“I really felt because of the makeup of this group that this would be a better team,” Sims said. “I really did.”
The Leopards (18-10) have a chance to prove their coach right when Hernando travels to Green Cove Springs Clay for Friday’s Class 5A region final. A victory against the Blue Devils (20-8) would secure the school’s first back-to-back state semifinal appearances.
“It means a lot,” said pitcher Brandon Lawson, a USF commit who lifted the Leopards to a 3-2 win over Tavares on Tuesday.
“To be where we have been the past two years, we’ve got a lot of expectations on us. I wanted to get our team back there for three straight years and tell them what we’re all about. Hopefully we will get back to states.”
A quick glance at last year’s statistics show how much Hernando had to replace to earn its school-record third consecutive trip to the elite eight.
The Leopards lost their top two pitchers — Lefty Brett Maggard was drafted by the Phillies but signed with St. Johns River State College, and right-hander J.T. Simpson left for Santa Fe College. They also graduated home run and RBI leader Ian Townsend (St. Johns River) and hits leader Luis Colaicomo (Marion Military Institute).
That means Hernando lost 111 of its 215 RBIs from a team that fell to powerhouse Jesuit in the final four.
“There’s a lot of alpha personalities on that team last year, and I loved every one of them,” Sims said. “They played hard.”
As those seniors played hard, the younger players watched and learned.
Hernando’s talent is unquestioned behind Lawson, star slugger Jake Johnson (.437 average, team-high 22 RBIs) and shortstop Christian Arroyo, a UF commit. Sims said this is one of the best defensive groups he’s had in his 17 seasons as coach.
But the growth of other players is what brought the Leopards to the school’s 11th region final.
Tyler Keegan grew from a reserve to a starting centerfielder — and made a key catch in Tuesday’s region semifinal win. Second baseman Brandon Gemmiti continued to improve, while Brooks Timmons and Trae Ratliff showed they deserved their bigger roles with RBI singles this week.
“This group, I’m telling you, everyone has found their role, and they play it,” Sims said.
Ratliff has been one of the biggest surprises since an illness forced him into the starting spot. He’s hitting .348 this month and has allowed only six earned runs in his last 22.2 innings.
Ratliff said he felt early in the season that his team had a shot at state, especially after they started bonding midway through the year.
“We came together,” Ratliff said. “I just felt like we were good. We had good team chemistry. Everyone liked each other.”
Hernando faces a tough challenge against a gritty Clay team that used a walkoff home run by Andy Toelken and a one-hitter by 2013 prospect Dane Dunning to stay alive Tuesday.
If the Leopards prevail, their third consecutive road playoff win will earn them one more road trip — to Port St. Lucie, where a chance of topping last year’s squad awaits.
Class 5A region final
Admission is $7
Hernando at Green Cove Springs Clay, 7 p.m. Friday
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com.