BROOKSVILLE — River Ridge has posed a large obstacle for Hernando over the past four years. In Saturday's championship of the third annual Leopard Slam, the Leopards overcame their rival in dramatic fashion.
Tana McDaniel's walkoff double in the eighth inning gave Hernando a 2-1 victory over the Royal Knights at Tom Varn Park.
"We had specific goals for this team coming in," Hernando coach Kevin Bittinger said. "We know we can win games, but we wanted to see if we could play with that intensity and at that level. River Ridge is a legitimate state championship contender."
Hernando (15-1) knocked off Citrus 5-2 in the semifinals earlier in the day to earn their second berth in the final in three years while River Ridge (16-2) dispatched Plantation American Heritage 4-0. Neither team had been challenged going into the final.
The matchup of the Royal Knights' Makenzie Goluba and Leopards' Courtney Riddle had pitchers' duel written all over it. Goluba entered the final 3-0 with two complete games, one shutout, 13 strikeouts and only two walks in the tournament. Riddle entered 3-0 with three complete games. Neither disappointed.
Hernando scratched out a run in the first when Megan Lane scored on a passed ball. River Ridge tied it in the second when Anessa Holes scored on a two-out single by Kenzi Maguire. That was the end of the offense for the next five innings.
"I know a lot of those girls," Riddle said. "They know what we do, and we know what they do. I try to pitch to their weaknesses, but they don't really have weaknesses. I needed to attack the strike zone and force them to hit ground balls and popups."
Riddle (eight innings, one earned run, seven hits, four strikeouts, two walks) worked out of multiple jams and stranded nine baserunners. Goluba (71/3 innings, five hits, two earned runs, seven strikeouts, two walks), on the other hand, was hardly challenged through seven innings.
That changed in the eighth. Riddle had her first 1-2-3 inning while Goluba allowed a leadoff hit to No. 9 hitter Erika Lewis. After a flyout by Lane, a bunt single from Danielle Harvey gave the Leopards runners on first and second with one out.
McDaniel approached the plate 0-for-3 with a strikeout, her worst game of the tournament. But a drive over Madisyn Palmer's head in centerfield was enough to score Lewis and end the game.
"I think that we were pumped the whole game, but we weren't getting hits," McDaniel said. "We just made something happen at the end."
Over the past four years, the Leopards had been 0-3 against River Ridge, outscored 12-0 along the way. For Riddle and McDaniel, both seniors, the victory was crucial to the team's confidence.
"It's very exciting because we've never beaten River Ridge since I was a freshman," McDaniel said. "It's big for us because we know we can beat a great team."