Round III is in the books and it was as memorable as most expected. Now the Lecanto and Citrus softball teams can hope for Round IV.
As unlikely as it may seem right now, it is the goal of each as they enter the quarterfinal round of Class 4A regional softball action tonight. And as unforgettable as their third matchup was, a fourth meeting would totally overwhelm in terms of importance.
However, to bring the scenario to fruition, both would have to win their next four games, setting up an ultimate conclusion in the Class 4A state finals.
"To be honest, we've been thinking about Hudson and that's all we've been thinking about," Citrus coach Larry Bishop said of his opponent in today's North I regional quarterfinal. "There is so much that can happen in the playoffs and in situations like this. As we showed last year, you've got to have a lot of breaks. So at this point, it's beyond the realm of my imagination to think about that.
"But talent-wise? Yes. Anytime you have a pitcher like Michelle (Rowe) and a team capable of doing what (Lecanto) has done, or a player like Gina (Reynolds) and a team like we have, anything is possible."
Citrus, by virtue of its thrilling 1-0 win over Lecanto in Friday's 4A-District 7 final, clearly has the easier road for now. In fact, the Hurricanes may have been dealt a considerable favor when Hudson upset Central in the 4A-8 semifinals.
If there was any team this year that seemed to have Citrus' number it was Central, which won two of their three meetings. And frankly, most expected the Bears and eventual 4A-8 champ Hernando to emerge with the two playoff berths handed out to the district champ and runner-up. Hernando obliged, winning the title with ease, but the Bears stumbled in a 3-2, nine-inning loss to the Cobras.
"Central is definitely a team that, like Dunnellon, always seems to get up to play us," Bishop said. "I was really shocked. I thought at the beginning of the year that they would win that district. I was surprised they didn't get out. But as I said, anything can happen in the playoffs."
Having never met during the regular season, Hudson comes in as a bit of an unknown for the Hurricanes. This worries Bishop some, but not much considering the resurgent play of his team in recent weeks. Citrus has lost only once in the last two weeks (2-1 at Central), bouncing back with regular-season wins over the Bears (7-0 the next day), South Sumter (8-0) and Hernando (7-0), and then a district championship.
"I think we really started coming into our own over the last couple weeks of the regular season," Bishop said. "We have the potential, we just needed to use it to our advantage.
"Early in the season, I didn't think we did that. But toward the end of the year, I thought we started playing up to our potential. And I think coming back from five runs down to Dunnellon (a 6-5 win in extra innings) and beating Lecanto (both in the district tournament) were good games for us."
Lecanto, meanwhile, faces an old nemesis in Hernando, which knocked it out of the playoffs in last year's district semifinal and has split its two games with the Panthers this year. The Leopards, in a different district this year, outscored their tournament opponents 19-0 behind two Casey Ellis one-hitters.
Ellis also was on the mound when Hernando beat the Panthers last year in the district and this year early in the season. However, the Leopards' win this year came against a depleted squad and Ellis will face a more formidable lineup tonight.
Missing at that time were designated hitter Loran Vybrial (hurt knee) and catcher Jackie Christensen, two of the biggest punches in the Panthers' lineup. Those two will be there tonight along with leading hitter Gina Pepe (.432, 29 runs scored, 16 RBI, 17 stolen bases) and pitching standout Rowe (0.46 ERA, 231 strikeouts, nine walks).
REGIONAL SOFTBALL AT A GLANCE
CLASS 4A, NORTH I QUARTERFINAL
WHO: Hudson (4A-District 8 runner-up) vs. Citrus (4A-7 champion).
WHEN/WHERE: 4 p.m., Citrus High School.
NOTES: The Cobras (16-11) are a young team of mostly sophomores and come in as heavy underdogs to Citrus (23-8), last year's 5A state runner-up. Citrus pitcher Gina Reynolds is coming off a five-hit, five-strikeout shutout of Lecanto and is backed by a team that is athletic and talented in all facets.
4A-NORTH II QUARTERFINAL
WHO: Lecanto (4A-7 runner-up) vs. Hernando (4A-8 champion).
WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m., Tom Varn Park, Brooksville.
NOTES: This should be a dandy, considering past meetings. Hernando pitcher Casey Ellis, though, should be wary of the best Lecanto lineup she has had to face. Called "as good as any pitcher in the area" by Lecanto coach Amy Lilley, Ellis will have to bring her best stuff to contain the likes of Loran Vybrial (.343, 11 RBI), Marren Istvan (.326, 19 RBI), Jackie Christensen (.410, 15 RBI).