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Leopards welcome challenge

Last year, and in the several years prior, Katelyn Vanderham's solo home run in the bottom of the third inning Tuesday night likely would have served as the exclamation point.

The shoulders of Hernando's district opponent likely would have stayed slumped, and the home team's two-run lead likely would have lasted.

"I thought we had it," said first-year Hernando coach Kevin Bittinger, who watched Vanderham's third-inning smash sail over the Coca-Cola sign on Tom Varn Park's rightfield wall and give his team a 4-2 lead.

But as Zephyrhills' six-run rally in the fourth suggested, and as the 11-4 final score made clear, the Leopards didn't have it.

Currently in its first year in Class 4A, Hernando is realizing it no longer will steamroll any district opponent not named Pasco.

Over the past couple of seasons, the Leopards have had a relatively easy time in district play, winning the title in 2004 and finishing second in 2005. This year, though, they find themselves in an eight-team district that features at least three opponents who will contend for first place.

No longer do the Leopards have teams such as Nature Coast and Wildwood to compete with. Now their opponents are teams such as Zephyrhills and Springstead and Gulf, in addition to usual rival Pasco.

"Last year, our only competition was Pasco," said junior catcher Ashley Lewie, who is hitting .389 with four RBIs and six runs scored. "Against the other teams, we pretty much walked away with a win."

But the Leopards aren't bemoaning the fact that they'll actually have to work for a spot in regionals. After all, Hernando coasted into the playoffs the past two seasons only to suffer a quick defeat.

"There are six teams we have to play hard against," Bittinger said, "and I think that's a good thing."

The thinking, of course, is that a tougher regular-season schedule will help Hernando get ready for postseason competition.

"It will make us better," Lewie said. "We all want to get better, and it makes us work at a tougher level."

Hernando realized what that level looks like in its loss to Zephyrhills. After the game, in a process Bittinger calls "Confessions and Dedications," each player on the team admitted to something she did wrong. After each player talked, the entire team ran.

"(The loss) was very disappointing," junior Chelsea Chipoletti said, "especially that big of a loss. We just fell apart."

Hernando has a big game tonight against Springstead, and will have several more tough contests until it gets a rematch against Zephyrhills on March 24.

The Leopards have been paced by players like Chipoletti and Vanderham, both of whom are hitting over .400. Vanderham also has been electric on the mound, going 2-0 with a 1.00 ERA, 17 strikeouts and no walks. Chipoletti's six RBIs lead the team, and she is tied with Vanderham for the team lead in extra-base hits with four.

Along with those numbers comes a better understanding of what it will take to win this year.

"We know now what it's going to be like," Chipoletti said. "We know what we need to work on."