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Old memory fuels new goal

Hernando has not forgotten the victory that slipped away last season vs. Gainesville.

Hernando coach Dwayne Mobley hasn't brought up last year's playoff letdown against Gainesville.

He hasn't needed to. The Leopards have been talking and thinking about that defeat since spring practices began.

"That's a heartbreaker," senior athlete Tyrail Hawkins said.

Tonight the Leopards (6-4) have a chance to break some Hurricane hearts when they travel to No. 1 Gainesville (10-0) for a rematch in the Class 6A region quarterfinals.

Hernando players and coaches say the team's best shot at revenge comes with learning from two of the mistakes that cost them last fall - lack of effort and discipline.

The Leopards had several chances to seal last year's home victory. Malcolm Hudson, now at Army, made a diving interception deep at the Gainesville 15 with three minutes left.

"I pretty much thought the game was over," linebacker/wide receiver K.D. Hagood said.

But a personal foul pushed Hernando out of field-goal range. The Leopards couldn't secure a first down that would have run out the clock, so Gainesville had one more shot.

Similar mental mistakes have plagued the Leopards this fall. Sunlake scored its only touchdown when Hernando had a few of its starters on the bench for discipline reasons. Two personal fouls set up Nature Coast's only score in Hernando's 14-7 win and could be costly against a stacked Gainesville lineup.

"We started off, everybody was kind of thinking they wanna do what they all wanna do," defensive end Robert Hill Bronson said. "Now we realize the bigger picture."

The bigger picture includes the other lesson from last year's collapse - playing until the final buzzer.

Gainesville took the ball at its 15 with 1:22 left, and the Leopards came up with a sack they thought could seal the game, again. Hernando relented - and the Hurricanes answered with three short passes and a 32-yard touchdown pass to current USF freshman Chris Bivins to end a 91-yard, 42-second drive and steal a 20-14 win.

"It happened so quick," said Mobley.

The frustration continued to simmer after the final buzzer sounded.

Gainesville knocked off a Sunlake team the Leopards had already beaten the next week and hung with Armwood in a 17-14 loss. If Hernando had closed out its game, Bronson said, maybe it could have upset the Hawks and made it to state.

"Thinking about that, it makes me sick to my stomach," he said.

And tonight, after a year of waiting, he and his teammates have a chance to do something about it.

Gainesville is one of the state's top teams in any class. A handful of players hold college offers, including wide receiver Chris Thompson (Florida commit), four-star junior running back Tony James and senior running back Raphael Webb, who rushed for two scores in last year's game.

But Hernando has started to mesh after an 0-3 start. Since district play began, the Leopards' defense - led by Missouri commit Darren Hambrick - has allowed more than 13 points only once, against county rival Springstead. Bronson has averaged more than a sack per game in his past four contests, and linebacker/running back Jeremiah Jackson has racked up 44 tackles and three touchdowns in his past three games.

An offensive line that seemed leaky early has also improved. Better blocking and more knowledge of assignments helped Hawkins average 19 yards per carry in a win over Mitchell in the regular-season finale.

"We've got heart," said Hawkins, a Division I prospect. "Now we know late in games, an interception, that doesn't seal the game. We've gotta play every down."

And avoid making the same mistakes from last fall for a different result in 2012.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

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Fast facts

Hernando (6-4) at Gainesville (10-0)

Winner gets: Springstead/Ocala Vanguard winner in the Class 6A region semifinals

About Gainesville: The loaded Hurricanes are ranked first in Class 6A and have outscored opponents 405-127 with wins over Yulee, Lake City Columbia and Madison County. RB Tony James is one of the country's top juniors with offers from UF, FSU and Miami, among others. He and another D-I recruit, Ralph Webb, are part of a ground game that rushed for 300 yards against Madison County and Ocala Vanguard. Don't forget about WR Chris Thompson, a UF commit and a three-star prospect.

Who's hot: Hernando LB Jeremiah Jackson, who returned an interception for a score and tallied 13 tackles against Mitchell in the regular-season finale. DE Robert Hill Bronson tallied 33 tackles and 51/2 sacks in his past four games. ATH Tyrail Hawkins rushed for 113 yards and a score against Mitchell, breaking a drought of four games without 100 yards.

Baker: Hernando has more talent than anyone on the North Suncoast outside of Dade City, but the Leopards haven't put together a complete game. They will tonight - but it won't be quite enough against one of the state's best teams. Gainesville, 31-13

LaRiviere: A solid passing attack is the Hernando defense's kryptonite. If the Leopards are going to stay within striking distance, they will need to see game-breaking touches from Ra'shaad Hart and Hawkins. Gainesville, 45-14

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