After returning nearly its entire lineup from a team that advanced to the region finals a year ago, Hernando was the odds-on favorite in the preseason to emerge from the North Suncoast again as the last team standing.
The Leopards, it seems, were a sure bet.
Friday, Hernando (25-5) is looking to make the state semifinals for the first time since 1967, when the Leopards won their only state title after beating Melbourne Central Catholic 2-0 in the Class B final.
They'll face a North Marion (22-8) team built much like the Leopards a year ago, lots of hitting and pitching but little postseason history.
We look at the keys that have propelled Hernando to its second-straight region final.
In the past 10 seasons, Hernando has qualified for the postseason just three times. The Leopards, though, have advanced to the region finals in each of those three appearances. They'll look to break a string of blowout losses in the region finals. In 2004, the Leopards fell 11-0 to Bishop Moore. Last season, Hernando fell by the same score to Dunnellon.
North Marion had never advanced past the region semifinals until last week's 9-7 win over Dunnellon.
"North Marion is a mirror image of us," Hernando coach Tim Sims said. "They hit it and pull it. Everything I've heard about them, they're very similar to us. "They're a young, talented group."
Sims hopes his team's postseason experience and the opposition's lack of it translates into a win for the Leopards.
Hernando has clubbed an astounding 30 home runs this season, which translates to one every time it takes the field. The Leopards' long-ball leader is Ian Townsend (nine), but Louis Colaiacomo (six), Brett Maggard (four), Christian Arroyo (three), Jake Johnson (three) and J.T. Simpson (two) can all go yard with one mighty swing. Sims said only his 2000 team that featured Chris Cole and Dee
Brown could hit home runs with the proficiency of his current squad.
Out of control
The Leopards have benefited from the control issues of opposing pitchers since the start of the regionals. Against Pasco, Simpson walked with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth to plate the winning run in an extra-innings, 4-3 victory.
"I would have done anything to help the team," Simpson told the St. Petersburg Times after the game. "If I had to take one in the back, I would have done that."
Apparently, so would Colaiacomo.
In the Leopards' next game against Mitchell in the region semifinals, Colaiacomo took an errant pitch in the back with the bases loaded for a walk-off hit by pitch. Hernando won its second game in a row 4-3.
"Never have I in my years of coaching seen a hit-by-pitch end a game," Sims said.
On the hill
Sims wouldn't reveal his starter for Friday, only saying the nod would go to either Simpson or Maggard. Simpson was simply masterful against Pasco, tossing seven innings and striking out 14 with no walks. Maggard gave "a veteran, workmanlike performance" a round later against Mitchell.
Whichever pitcher the Leopards don't start will be available in the bullpen. So, too, will Cody Gillis and Dillon Bedwell.
"Each of our pitchers offers something a little different, different types of arm movement and speed that's unusual at the high school level," Sims said.
Friday at 7 p.m. Admission is $6.
4A: North Marion at Hernando