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HERNANDO LEOPARDS // Leopards growl for a district title

(ran PT, CI, HT editions)

Sure, last season's state playoff run was Hernando High's first since 1981.

But does that make it foolish to consider a succeeding playoff berth to be a near-foregone conclusion?

Not at all. Several factors make Hernando a favorite to reach the post-season:

Hernando needs only to be in the top two in its six-team district since both advance to the state playoffs.

District realignment has matched Hernando with opponents that are, generally, far less potent than the squads the Leopards used to butt heads with. Gone are perennial powers Pasco High, Zephyrhills and Land O'Lakes, replaced by first-year Belleview, erratic Crystal River and perennial pushovers Dunnellon and Lecanto. Only Central remains a district adversary.

Eric Riggins, who rushed for more than 100 yards per game last year and merited a mailbox full of correspondence from NCAA Division I programs, is back, bigger and faster.

Hernando has to shore up some holes on the offensive line and adjust to a new quarterback, but it also has speed all over the field. With an aggressive defensive line, a veteran secondary and a backfield that also features speedsters Leon Williams and John Capel, Hernando could well be heading for its first district crown in 14 years.

Passing game: The graduation of stellar Shad Reese left J. J. Shannon and Joe Maner competing for the open quarterback slot in the preseason, with Shannon earning the nod in the fall jamboree. The speed of several other wideouts should mean that Hernando will be able to air it out more than usual.

Running game: Standout fullback Matt Deason graduated, so Hernando will look to the speedy trio of Riggins, Williams and Capel to take up the slack. Riggins is worth six points most times he reaches open field. Last year, he scored 17 touchdowns in 10 regular-season games despite Hernando's reliance on Deason and Reese (18 TDs combined) for scoring in the red zone.

Offensive line: This is where Hernando's season could rise or fall. The Leopards lost several top athletes, but returning guards Danny Gay and Dan Taylor make a solid though average-sized anchor to build on. Josh Hoyle steps in at center, where he was a backup last year.

Defensive line: Imhoff has high regard and expectations for this group. Matt Sullens and Darick Knight return at the ends, and are joined by Taylor and Mike Harrison as the tackles. They, too, are reputed to be very fast.

Linebackers: A question mark, since Gay is the only returner here. He's joined by B. J. Hart, a big sophomore in his second year on the varsity.

Defensive backs: Back in force, with Fabian Burnett and Corey Morgan returning as safeties and Shannon returning at cornerback. Imhoff has several options to spell them, including Capel, Maner and Williams.

Kicking game: Hernando lost its kicker and punter to graduation. Capel and Morgan are probable to punt, Williams and Capel probable to kick.

The coach: Imhoff said his primary objective is for his players and him to have fun, and he directs the team to do exactly that before every game. It must be fun _ despite a consistently tough district schedule, Imhoff has had only one losing season in his seven at the school.

Outlook: The opener against South Sumter will be a key indicator. Hernando has a couple of question marks in critical areas, but it has the athletes to do the job. If the offensive line comes together, Riggins could carry the Leopards a long way.

AT A GLANCE

Coach: Mike Imhoff, eighth season (47-27).

Assistant coaches: T. V. Chambers, Ron Cline, Stan Coburn, Brent Gaustad.

Colors: Purple and gold.

Stadium: Tom Fisher Stadium, on campus, 200 East Kelly St., Brooksville.

Class: 4A, District 6.

Playoff history

1967: Lost to Cross City Dixie Co. 25-14.

1981: Beat Oviedo 26-13; lost to G'ville Buchholz 14-2.

1994: Beat Osceola 14-7 (OT); lost to South Sumter 26-7.

1994 results (8-4)

Crystal River 28-7 W

Central 34-21 W

at South Sumter 27-15 L

at Land O'Lakes 21-13 W

Zephyrhills 21-5 W

Lecanto 34-12 W

at Hudson 55-20 W

Citrus 35-12 W

at Pasco 61-7 L

at Springstead 27-21 L

Class 4A state playoffs

at Osceola 14-7 (OT) W

at South Sumter 26-7 L

Did you know?

Hernando has only lost twice to an in-county opponent in the 17-year history of Springstead and the six-year history of Central, for a record of 21-2 against county rivals. Both losses were to Springstead, in the past two seasons.

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