BROOKSVILLE — Even after moving up from Class A to 4A this season, hitters are finding it difficult to solve Courtney Riddle.
Riddle threw her first pitches as a fifth-grader. Two years later, she was leading Hernando Christian Academy to the state semifinals as the Lions’ ace.
The arc of improvement shows just how talented she is on the diamond, and nothing seems to be slowing her down. There were questions as to whether the two-time state final four competitor for HCA would maintain that level of success when she transferred to Hernando as a freshman, but she has answered those and more.
In her first season with the Leopards, the pitcher has risen to the top of the staff with a 3.18 ERA, 31 strikeouts in 48 1/3 innings and a 5-3 record. The contrast in competition is obvious with HCA playing in Class A and Hernando at Class 4A, but Riddle loves the challenge.
“There was a difference (this season), but I knew I had my team behind me and we all work together to make that adjustment easier,” she said. “I keep the doubters in my mind every time I go out there, just so I can prove them wrong.”
When the Leopards took on rival Nature Coast on March 11 at Tom Varn Park, Riddle went to the mound confident as usual. It’s hard not to be confident when you are used to success. While leading HCA to the final four as an eighth-grader, she hurled 164 strikeouts in only 1332/3 innings with a 1.00 ERA and a 17-5 record.
The Sharks would prove to be just another hurdle. The freshman phenom tossed a one-hit shutout for her team-leading fourth win of the year. The performance was so impressive that Hernando coach Kevin Bittinger began to see Riddle’s true potential.
“You never know what you’re going to get, but she’s been as good as advertised and even better in some regards,” Bittinger said. “She always wants the ball in her hands, and I feel she can pitch against any team around here.”
That potential began to form at HCA while Riddle cut her teeth with former coach Ernie Chatman. During the postseason last year, he would boast about how far she had come in two short years in the program. All of that work seems to be paying dividends.
“Courtney has the experience now to shut down teams when she sees the lineup the second time around,” Chatman said. “If anything, I think she gets better as the game goes on.”
The other plus for Bittinger is that on Riddle’s off days he can put her in the field because she can handle the bat as well. While at HCA, she put up seasons of .344 with nine runs batted in as a seventh-grader and .431 with 22 RBIs last year. Through 14 games this season she is hitting .326 with six RBIs in the heart of the order.
“She’s hitting third on a 4A team,” Bittinger said. “That’s one of the first things that caught my eye about her. If she’s not on the mound, she playing first or second base.”
With this rate of progress, there is no telling what kind of impact Riddle can make four years from now.