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Leopards claw way back to top

Remember this team?

The one that advanced to the final four the past two seasons, making the state championship game in 2000?

The one whose pitcher was the Times All-Suncoast Player of the Year last season?

Well, the Hernando Leopards are back.

After losing three of their first five games and four of eight, the Leopards (8-4, 5-1) won four straight games to move to the top of Class 3A, District 6.

"I don't know if I want to call it a hot streak at this point," coach Ernie Chatman said. "We've played a little more consistently recently. We've been able to swing the bats a little bit better, probably.

"There have been a number of people contributing. That's probably been the biggest asset, instead of just a few."

You won't mistake this year's Hernando team for its predecessors.

The Leopards' most recognizable player the past few seasons, pitcher Chrissy Hartley, graduated, leaving the mound to a pair of sophomore hurlers, Ashley Rogers and Christen Baldwin.

Past teams put the ball on the ground and tried to manufacture runs. But this season, the Leopards are much less subtle.

"We're not as good at (manufacturing runs) now, which makes us swing the bat a lot more," Chatman said.

"In the past, we had to do that because we couldn't swing the bat very well."

It seems everybody is getting into the act.

Kristy Langworthy tripled and singled in a 5-3 victory over Citrus on March 14.

Becky Ellis and Carolyn Gant had a couple of hits apiece in a 5-2 win over Williston on Tuesday.

Nicole Young (.375), Ashley Rogers (.410) and Scottisha Scrivens (.389) have hit consistently all season.

Chatman hopes the victory at Citrus _ a place that has given Hernando troubles in the past _ will serve as a jumping-off point for his team.

The Leopards trailed 3-2 in the fifth inning before taking advantage of a Hurricanes error to come back.

"I think you kind of feed off what you most recently accomplished," Chatman said, "and a good performance inspires another good performance."

SPEED TRAP: Central catcher Shauna Dampier has not allowed a stolen base this season, throwing out all seven runners who have attempted to steal against her.

She also has picked three runners off first base.

"It's an instinct _ being able to see somebody out of the corner of your eye and knowing the situation," Central coach Benny Martinez said.

"She has the uncanny ability to just pick that up immediately," Martinez said.

Dampier has been almost flawless behind the plate.

She made an errant throw to third, allowing a Crystal River runner to score in a 6-0 Bears' loss, and has just one passed ball in 11 games.

"I've never in my life seen a catcher do something like that," Martinez said.

ALMOST THERE: Central (4-0 in district) could clinch the top seed in the Class 4A, District 7 tournament by beating Lecanto on Thursday or Springstead today.

Barring a collapse, the Panthers (2-3) or Eagles (3-2) would wind up as the No. 2 seed.

BOTTOM HEAVY: Lindsey Herr's two-run hit into the gap in Central's 3-2 win over Tampa Catholic on Tuesday was just the latest contribution from the bottom of the Bears' order.

Herr, who bats sixth, raised her average 92 points to .276 in the past two weeks after making an adjustment to her swing.

No. 7 hitter Brittany Hasty has come on of late as has No. 8 hitter Jen Adams, who singled and scored the winning run against Tampa Catholic.

No. 9 hitter Valerie Long has nine walks, four sacrifice bunts and an RBI groundout. Her .357 on-base percentage is sixth-best on the team.

BETTER THAN ONE: Rogers and Baldwin have been equally effective for Hernando.

Rogers is 5-3 with two no-hitters, 67 strikeouts and a 1.27 ERA in 55 innings. Baldwin is 3-1 with 20 strikeouts and a 0.84 ERA in 25 innings.

"I like to be able to use more than one (pitcher), because you never know when one's going to go down," Chatman said.

"We all know you're not going to have your best stuff every time you go out. You may need someone to pick you up some day."