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Eagles are solid, Leopards rebuilding, Bears suspect

Hernando County's three high school varsity baseball teams find themselves in varying states of existence as their seasons get into full swing.

They're playing with experience at Springstead, rebuilding at Hernando, and trying to overcome obstacles at Central.

All three teams opened their seasons in FHSAA Diamond Classic tournaments, with regular-season play getting under way last week and more tournament action upcoming this week.

Springstead opened with a pair of victories in its Diamond Classic, beating host Land O'Lakes 2-1 and Pasco 12-4.

The Eagles, one of two hosts for the Sunshine Athletic Conference tournament that begins Monday and ends Friday, were to have played Hernando High in their first regular-season game Saturday.

Hernando, which beat Land O'Lakes 5-2 last Saturday and was to have played Eustis on Friday, opened with a 6-4 loss to Lakeland George Jenkins in the Diamond Classic at Zephyrhills before rebounding to beat Lakeland Kathleen 11-0 in its second game.

The Leopards host the four-team, double-elimination Tom Varn Invitational beginning Wednesday.

Central, scheduled to play Land O'Lakes last Friday night in the makeup of a rained-out game, opened with Diamond Classic losses at Land O'Lakes to Pasco (8-7) and Land O'Lakes (11-10).

Here's a closer look at the county's three teams:

Central Bears

3A-District 7; Gulf Coast Conference

Central proved one thing in its first two games: It can rally. The Bears came back from a 6-2 deficit to take a 7-6 lead before falling to Pasco, and they came back from a 7-1 deficit to take a 10-9 lead before falling to Land O'Lakes.

In doing that, though, Central proved a few other things.

"When we get down, we relax, and that's when we let things happen," Bears coach Gary Buel said. "That's when we get back in it, but then it gets close and we play tight again. I think that we want to win so bad that we try too hard."

Only five regulars return from a 3-23 club. Several players Buel had expected back aren't for a variety of reasons, including would-be Nos. 1 and 2 pitchers Sheldon Robinson and Jason Thomas.

That leaves Buel with inexperienced Jeff Cornett and Adam Benefield (2-5 last season) as his top two pitchers, and caused him to make an early call-up from the junior varsity for a No. 3 starter in freshman Larry Varner.

Central's infield has Justin Bowman at first base; Cornett or Matt Goodwin at second; Jerry Griffin at shortstop; Kevin Renshaw, Chad Good or Benefield at third; and an experienced catcher in Richie Maiorini, who caught every game as a sophomore last season.

The Bears outfielders should come from a group including Benefield, Good, John Garrett, Joe Volonino, Tim Dillow, Ricky Williams and Chris Cretella.

"Last year our problem was we couldn't score any runs," Buel said. "We've scored 17 runs in our first two games this year, outhit our opponents 18-9, and we're 0-9. We had 14 walks and five wild pitches against Land O'Lakes.

"Our pitching and defense is definitely suspect, but I just tell the guys that if we keep swinging the bats we're going to win a few games."

Hernando Leopards

3A-District 7; Gulf Coast Conference

New coach Tim Sims takes over a district-championship club from Ernie Chatman, but gone from it is a strong class of seniors that included major-league draft choices Landon Hessler and Brent Stentz, both pitchers.

With would-be No. 1 pitcher Bronson Arroyo (and second-base candidate Ryan Robinson) off to a late start because they helped Hernando's basketball team reach the sub-region round of the Class 3A state playoffs, Sims was pleased with Hernando's early success.

Lakeland George Jenkins had to rally in the final inning to beat Bert Snow in Hernando's opener, Danny Frazier threw a one-hitter against Kathleen, and Snow and Frazier combined for a one-hitter against Land O'Lakes.

"They're both power pitchers who will go right at you," Sims said of Snow and Frazier.

Add Arroyo (who played for Brooksville's state-champion Dixie League team last summer) and Brent Lynch (currently battling a shoulder injury), include a foursome of potential relievers, and it's obvious the Leopards have some pitching depth. But they're young.

"The key is going to be our pitching, and seeing how long it takes for them to mature," Sims said. "When Bronson is out there, we should be pretty solid."

Hernando's infield has Jason Sharp and Carson Finney both able to play catcher or first base, Nathaniel Brown or Robinson at second, Arroyo at shortstop, and Tyson Ellis or Frazier at third. The outfield has Frazier or Snow in left, Jason Bracch in center and Lynch in right.

Springstead Eagles

4A-District 7; Sunshine Athletic Conference

There's a lot of familiar names on Springstead's roster, and that's something coach Chuck Moehle is glad to see.

"A lot of these kids are back," said Moehle, whose club was 10-17 last season, "and a lot of them have matured quite a bit. It's a real responsible group."

Senior Jeff Weber, who threw a complete-game victory against Land O'Lakes, leads a solid pitching corps. The rest of the staff includes sophomore Greg Caraynoff, hard-throwing Greg Long, and relievers/spot starters Donald Kelly, Derek Mateos (the team's lone lefty), Shawn Weber and Luke Buettner.

"It seems like we have numbers with our pitchers," Moehle said. "The key for any team is pitching, and with us it's defense too."

Springstead's infield has improved Steve Loscalzo behind the plate, Mateos at first, Jeff Weber and Rich Maher at second, Long returning at shortstop, and clean-up hitter Chris Whaley, who homered against Land O'Lakes, at third.

The Eagles outfield has D.J. Whiting backed up by Steve Barnier in left, Charlie Plaia (three RBI vs. Pasco) in center, and Shawn Weber in right.

"I expect our infield to be pretty consistent and solid," Moehle said, "and so far the outfield is doing the job too."

Outlooks on Pasco County high school baseball teams will appear later this week.