Before the start of the season, Hernando's softball team seemed to be the clear district favorite.
Class 4A, District 8 was realigned this season and the Leopards were left without the competition of Lecanto and Citrus, the two biggest contenders in District 7. But as the Leopards have found out, some of their toughest competition in the district tournament may come from right down the street.
After years of finishing below .500, Central has put together a 5-3 district record (12-9 overall) to earn the No. 2 seed as the only district team to beat Hernando this year.
The fireworks could come Friday if the Leopards and Bears win their games Wednesday to meet in the final.
The tournament begins tonight with Zephyrhills playing host Pasco at 7.
Earlier this year, on a cold night in March, Hernando squeaked out a 3-2 win at Central after scoring in the early innings. Central ace Jennifer Pape shut the Leopards down the rest of the way while both teams struggled to hit.
The Bears exacted their revenge last month at Tom Varn Stadium when they blasted the Leopards 7-2. It was an emotionally charged game that began with the Leopards botching routine defensive plays and ended with Central's players chanting victory songs as the bus left.
"They played very well against us that night," Hernando coach Ernie Chatman said. "They're probably feeling fairly confident about themselves."
Since then, the Bears have played some of the best softball of their history. They defeated a talented Citrus team twice this year and finished the season by winning seven of their last eight.
All that stands between a rematch of the two teams is for Central to register a win over Hudson Wednesday at 5 p.m. and for Hernando to beat the Pasco-Zephyrhills winner. The task will not be easy for either team.
Hernando beat Pasco twice this year, but only by 5-3 and 3-1. Each time, the Leopards took advantage of Pirates mistakes in the later innings to pull out the wins. Central split the regular season with the Cobras, but has the motivation of facing Hernando (19-9, 7-1 in 4A-8) again.
"I'm sure they've discussed it," Chatman said. "We'll try to feed off that."
One of the factors that makes Hernando the favorite to win and host a regional is its consistency. The Leopards have not needed the heroics of a single player to register their wins. They boast a strong top half of their batting order and two pitchers, sophomore Beth Chatman and senior Casey Ellis, who have dominated this season. The Bears, however, have relied on one dominant pitcher, Pape, for the bulk of their innings.
5A-DISTRICT 8 TOURNAMENT: New coach. New field. Same old result.
In his first year as coach, Carmine Rufa expected to help Springstead hit the .500 mark. But the Eagles finished 1-24 to follow up a 3-17 season last year.
Springstead was unable to play on a field that was being retooled with lights and high-grade grass. With all the rain and flooding, the sod remained underwater in Homestead. In the meantime, Rufa said he had to deal with several players who did not share his philosophy.
"Some kids didn't want to make a commitment. They didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "Some of those girls were out to have fun and not be competitive. I want it to be fun, but I also want to be competitive."
The Eagles go into the Class 5A, District 8 tournament as the second-to-last seed and face host Land O'Lakes. And that's only because No. 7 Sickles (22-2) was moved into Class 5A midway through the season and has not played a district opponent. Yet the Gryphons and Ridgewood are favored to meet in the championship.
As for the Eagles, Rufa said his players are looking forward to improving their game in the summer for another shot at .500 next season.
"The girls that are playing now are a good bunch of girls; they're hard workers," he said. "They're looking forward to next year."