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Hernando wins tonight or misses playoffs

The routes appeared similarly treacherous, but Hernando chose the road less traveled.

Needing a win over Crystal River (5-3) or South Sumter (6-2) to remain in contention for one of Class 3A, District 8's two playoff spots, the Leopards forced themselves onto a rocky precipice with a 22-7 loss to Crystal River last week.

Now, injury-wracked Hernando (4-4) must beat a South Sumter squad that has been to the state quarterfinals each of the past six seasons to reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons and the sixth time in nine.

"I don't know if we're any healthier, but I think the kids realize this game is the difference between going to the playoffs and not," Hernando offensive/defensive line coach Matt Smith said. "Even if we do win, it doesn't guarantee we're going to go to the playoffs."

Therein lies the rub.

While a loss will eliminate Hernando from postseason contention, a win guarantees only a three-way shootout to determine the district champion and runner-up and the playoff berths that go with them.

South Sumter can win the district title outright with a victory.

But for the Raiders, who have been to the state semifinals the past four seasons, losing to the eventual champion the past two, making the playoffs is only the first step.

"There's nothing like the experience of being in the state playoffs," South Sumter coach Inman Sherman said.

"It helps your players understand, being in that situation. You can't replace that kind of experience. It's more intense, teams are better coached and players are better, obviously. I think it helps your program overall to be in those situations."

To get there, Hernando will have to overcome South Sumter's speed and big-play potential on offense and experience up front.

Quarterback Jarrod Fleming and running back Louis Williams (700-plus yards) are the Raiders' biggest weapons, but an offensive line anchored by Drew Noe (6-feet-4, 300 pounds) and Casey Martin (6-3, 265) and a defensive front featuring Jesse Scheffer (6-1, 270), Scott Gedeist (5-10, 215) and Mike Donaway (6-0, 170) have stabilized a team that lost 24 players to graduation after last season.

"According to our scouting report, they're mainly seniors on the offensive line and they have the ability to score at any time," Smith said.

So does Hernando, Sherman said.

The speed of the Leopards, particularly running backs Rod Roberts (789 yards) and Jagren Castillo (577) and quarterback Antonio Brown (7 touchdowns), concerns him most.

"I think we're going to have to do a great job tackling those guys," Sherman said. "They've got good motors, and they run well.

"Rod's the premier back, in our opinion, but Castillo is a threat and Brown, we're concerned about him keeping the ball out of the quarterback position."

Hernando also boasts an offensive line that has cleared the way for 273 rushing yards per game.

"We're going to have to stay on our blocks," Smith said. "We're just going to have to come out and be aggressive and try to establish control of the line of scrimmage. We've felt pretty good about our blocking with the exception of a couple of games. We're moving the ball on the ground."

Hernando also has to stay healthy. The Leopards practiced without seven starters in the days leading to the Crystal River game, and Roberts (ankle) and Castillo (hamstring) have battled injuries throughout the season.

"It just basically at this point comes down to who wants it more," Smith said.

_ Frank Pastor can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1430. Send e-mail to pastorsptimes.com.

GAME-BY-GAME

Hernando (4-4)

SEPTEMBER

5 Springstead L, 10-7

12 at CCC W, 28-13

19 Ridgewood W, 57-17

26 at Pasco L, 17-13

OCTOBER

3 Citrus+ W, 22-19

10 at Bishop Moore L, 34-20

17 Lecanto+ W, 15-6

24 at Crystal River+ L, 22-7

S. Sumter (6-2)

SEPTEMBER

5 at Umatilla L, 45-7

12 Wildwood W, 53-20

19 Lecanto+ W, 52-8

26 Dunnellon W, 23-14

OCTOBER

3 Crystal River+ W, 42-29

10 at Lake Highland L, 21-6

17 Citrus+ W, 34-8

24 Mount Dora W, 37-0

+ District game

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