There were days none of the 13 players believed they would be shagging fly balls in the soupy heat of May. After all, Hernando Christian reached the final four last season, then lost six starters for various reasons. The first indicator this might not be the Lions' year was a horrendous preseason tournament, which included a 22-2 loss to Tampa Catholic. Then something changed. Relationships evolved, and the casual "hello" in the hallways turned into true friendships in the dugout. The Lions got to know each other, they bonded, and as trust strengthened so did HCA's play.
The Lions (20-5) have won 15 of their last 16 games, and are headed to consecutive final fours with plenty of reason to believe this dominance could continue for seasons to come.
Behind it all is Hernando County icon Ernie Chatman, who seems to exceed the competition in everything he has ever accomplished. The 60-year-old can teach baseball, referee basketball and seems to clobber his fair share of competing runners in various races across the country.
"The expectations were less," Chatman said of the season. "It certainly looked like it might be different, and (the wins have) kind of rolled. They've gotten better. They've learned to play together and count on each other."
It comes as little surprise his ace, eighth-grader Courtney Riddle, credits Chatman with turning her into the clutch player she is today.
Chatman, as it turns out, coached Riddle's father, David, as a baseball player. And about three years ago Courtney decided she wanted Chatman to teach her how to pitch. So she asked her father to smooth the path.
"She got a lot of experience last year," Chatman said. "She's pretty much played year-round. She's pitched well, and the girls have confidence in her, that's important."
Riddle has been stellar this season with a 0.82 ERA over 1272/3 innings, 157 strikeouts and a 17-4 record. Offensively, she leads the Lions in almost every category, including her .449 batting average. Riddle has 31 hits, 22 RBIs, 10 doubles, four triples and 28 runs scored.
"She has the ability to make a pitch in a tough situation when people can't make that pitch," Chatman said. "Why? I don't know. She likes to play and has a lot of support from home. The experience she's gained has been a real factor because she's put in a lot of pressure situations."
Credit Riddle's character.
Ask a specific question about her performance and she offers a veteran answer that is sure to give credit to her teammates. And they deserve it. As she points out, she couldn't do it alone.
"We didn't think we'd be as good as we've been," Riddle said. "… I owe a lot to my team. They play great defense behind me and always keep me in games. Without them, we wouldn't be having the success we're having this year."
Offensively, she has received plenty of support from players such as Audrey Allen, Ashley McKay, Holly Field, Briana Hogan and Alicia Field. They've also been rather sound on defense, limiting opponents to just 75 runs.
Regardless of what happens Monday at noon when the Lions face Boca Raton Grandview Prep (21-6) in a Class A state semifinal in Clermont, the foundation has been laid down for the next two seasons, and possibly more.
"It's great," Riddle said. "We have two seniors, five sophomores, one seventh-grader, a freshman and three eighth-graders. We're in good shape."
Izzy Gould can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 421-3886.