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4A region baseball: Chatman cheers Leopards' return to state tourney

BROOKSVILLE - Ernie Chatman stood out in his suit and purple and gold tie, beaming on the field after the game.

Like the rest of the alumni of Hernando High School, he was glowing because of the Leopards' return to the state tournament for the first time in almost half a century. Unlike the rest of the alumni, Chatman was around for the last time and has close ties to the program.

"(Former Hernando) Coach (Tom) Varn was a legend and he would say that team was his most special," Chatman said. "There is obviously a great deal of pride to be connected with this school and the great history of its baseball program."

The 1967 Hernando team won the state title, and that was also Chatman's graduating class. The Leopards were coached by Varn at the time, and like a baseball encyclopedia, Chatman can rattle off the lineup like it was yesterday.

"There was Hale Lee and Larry Lee in the outfield and Bob Barnett behind the plate," he started. "Grover Ellis, Bubba Varn …"

After Varn left coaching in the early '70s, Chatman took the reins in 1975 and coached off and on until '93. During his tenure he mentored players like former major-leaguers Mike Walker and Eddie Looper. Another one of his players was current coach Tim Sims.

Now the connection has come full circle with Sims leading this group of Leopards back to the state semifinals.

"When you're one of Coach Chatman's players, it's just expected by you and the alumni to be this close to the program," Sims said. "We're a public school with a lot of tradition. We're just different that way."

To Chatman, Brett Maggard's and J.T. Simpson's pitching gems over the past few weeks remind him of the masterpieces he once saw from Sammy Sharpe and Kenny Frazier on that '67 club. When Louis Colaiacomo makes a terrific play in the outfield, it calls to mind the game-saving catch Buster McGee made in the region final that season.

Jesuit awaits Hernando in the next round, an opponent Chatman knows all too well. The history between the teams is pretty rich. The Tigers bounced the Leopards from the playoffs in the 1977 region final and in the 1982 district title game.