BROOKSVILLE – For much of the season, Ygenio Booker was the second or third option for Hernando’s explosive offense. With the season on the line in Friday night’s Class 5A region quarterfinal, the Leopards leaned on their best athlete, and he responded to the challenge.
Hernando hung tough with state powerhouse Clay before succumbing 41-37 at Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium.
"This is a great group of guys that bought in," Hernando coach Bill Vonada said. "We didn’t play a perfect game, but we put up a great effort against one of the more storied programs in this state."
The Leopards (7-3) won the coin toss and surprised many by deferring after Vonada had preached controlling the clock against the Blue Devils (8-3). After giving up a score on the opening drive — Clay tailback Aundre Carter rushed for a 1-yard touchdown — the Leopards responded immediately.
After breaking a 13-yard run on his first carry, Booker took his next pitch 52 yards to the end zone to tie the score.
"Early in the year, one of the questions was how to get (Booker) the ball," Vonada said. "He really peaked for us as the year went on, and he began to understand the offense. He made some big plays (Friday night), and that’s what opened up the other stuff for us."
The teams went back and forth for 18 minutes, sitting at 21-21 midway through the second quarter.
Hernando junior cornerback Shemar Lawson picked off Clay quarterback Caleb Eason and returned the interception 59 yards to the Blue Devils’ 1-yard line. Leopards fullback Izzy Fields (13 carries, 76 yards, two touchdowns) plunged in for his 16th touchdown of the season. For Eason, the interception was his second of the year.
A Booker 29-yard kickoff return set up kicker Luke D’Ambrosio’s 26-yard field goal as time expired in the first half. Hernando trailed 34-23 going into the locker room.
Vonada knew the key to getting back in the game was the strategy he intended on employing heading into the contest. Receiving the second-half kickoff, the Leopards started at their 30. The drive went 14 plays and lasted over eight minutes, ending with Fields rushing for another 1-yard score to cut the deficit to 34-30.
A huge fourth-down stop of Carter (29 carries, 279 yards, three touchdowns) on the 1 gave the Leopards possession to start the fourth quarter. They went 99 yards on nine plays, with Booker catching a 9-yard touchdown pass from Boston Tafelski (7-of-11, 90 yards, one touchdown, one interception, 12 carries, 81 yards) to give Hernando its first lead of the night, 37-34.
In the end, the Leopards left too much time on the clock for the Blue Devils’ offense. Carter scored on a 1-yard run with 3:54 left, and an interception of a Tafelski pass intended for Booker proved to be the final nail.
"I felt like we had one more big play left (for Booker)," Vonada said. "Unfortunately, we just ran out of time."
Booker finished the night with seven carries for 92 yards, five catches for 80 yards and three touchdowns.
"I noticed a different level of play (from Clay), but I got used to it," Booker said. "I was just thinking about playing like every play was my last down. It’s my senior year. All gas, no brakes."