BROOKSVILLE — Each of the past four seasons, Hernando has reached at least the region final, including last year when the Leopards (24-6) won a third Class 5A, District 7 crown in four years on the shoulders of ace starter Brandon Lawson and slugging shortstop Christian Arroyo.
Both Lawson and Arroyo have since graduated. Lawson has already made his first start and earned his first win in a USF uniform, and Arroyo is preparing to report to spring training as the top pick of the San Francisco Giants in last spring's draft.
Those personnel losses leave a void that Hernando coach Tim Sims will attempt to fill, but with more than 300 victories and 19 years of experience, he is no stranger to this process.
"I think that having these underclassmen that have been sitting back and waiting for their opportunity is actually a good thing," Sims said. "You will be shocked to hear this coming out of my mouth, but if anything, I feel like these guys may be trying too hard at times."
The Leopards lost their top three starters from last season's rotation. Left-hander Lawson and right-handers Trae Ratliff and Eloy Ramirez combined for 25 of the team's 30 starts, going 21-2 when taking the mound. The lone remaining pitcher with multiple starts is righty Kyle Kilbourne. The senior went 3-3 with a 3.42 ERA last year with 19 strikeouts and 11 walks in 28 innings.
The statistics weren't eye-popping, but the experience of competing with some of the best pitchers to come through the program definitely affected Kilbourne.
"Kilbourne has done his work during the summer and fall, keeping up with a very good throwing program," Sims said. "I'm not surprised by what I'm seeing from him now. He put in his time."
Of the 11 regulars from last season's roster, only Kilbourne and catcher Austin Treverton return. Neither was exceptional at the plate; Kilbourne hit .227 with seven RBIs in 20 games and Treverton hit .192 with eight RBIs in 22 games. But they will be counted on heavily for leadership on what is an inexperienced lineup. The Leopards, who are off to a 5-0 start, are in a new 5A-7 district that now includes perennial powers Pasco and Wesley Chapel. The Pirates have reached the state playoffs 12 of the past 13 seasons, while the Wildcats have been to the state playoffs four times since 2008.
Hernando beat Wesley Chapel 4-3 in extra innings this past week and earlier dispatched Pasco 4-1 behind a complete-game victory from Kilbourne.
David Flowers is 2-0 in his two starts, dominating both Lecanto and Weeki Wachee, while Brad Ellis has done well in relief.
"David is a bulldog," Sims said. "Whether he has his best stuff or not, he is going to give you everything he has every time he is out there."
Junior outfielder Justin Young, who stands 6-foot-4, has become a standout offensively, going 3-for-4 with four RBIs and two doubles in an opening 11-1 win over the Hornets. He added a single and run scored in the victory over Wesley Chapel. Fellow outfielders Tyler Allen and Tyler Ledington have also made a significant impact to help push runs across.
Every night it seems someone new carries the offense. It's a trend that Sims doesn't see stopping any time soon.
"We've gone into some of these games pressing in the first couple innings, but when we settle down, any of these kids has the ability to push runs across," he said.