BROOKSVILLE — Forget the 19 wins, two Division I recruits and three consecutive trips to the region final or beyond.
Hernando coach Tim Sims is reminding the North Suncoast’s top team that when district play begins next week, the history of his program and players becomes irrelevant.
“I feel as confident as you can be when you go to 0-0 …” Sims said. “But they’re playing pretty good.”
That might be an understatement.
His Leopards (19-5) have won seven games in a row. They knocked off rival Springstead on Tuesday to seal the Hernando County championship. Two days later, they shut out Land O’Lakes to claim the title as the best team in the North Suncoast.
Hernando’s pitching staff is one of the biggest reasons the Leopards figure to be playoff contenders in Class 5A, District 7. Three aces — Brandon Lawson, Trae Ratliff and Eloy Ramirez — boast ERAs lower than 2.25 and at least 25 strikeouts on a team that has allowed only six runs all month.
“It’s nice to have those guys,” said shortstop Christian Arroyo, an MLB prospect and UF signee. “They’re gonna make their pitches.”
Lawson, a USF recruit and potential draft pick, has continued the dominance he showed last spring, when he was the Tampa Bay Times’ North Suncoast pitcher of the year. After shutting out Land O’Lakes this week, he leads the area with a 0.33 ERA, and his 82 strikeouts are the most in the county.
Ratliff has been less heralded but nearly as successful. The St. Johns River State College signee bottled up Springstead on Tuesday and has allowed runs in only three of his six appearances.
“If there’s a better heart guy with better stuff in the state, I don’t see it,” Sims said. “He goes out there and competes.”
For Hernando to make it back to the playoffs, it will need its offense — led by Arroyo’s .519 average and eight home runs — and chemistry to come through.
Last year’s team reached the Class 5A region final, but Arroyo said it wasn’t as close as this year’s bunch. Neither cliques nor cracks have appeared in the dugout, and a roster loaded with nine seniors now boasts the experience to make another run at state.
“We never really got to our full potential (last year),” Arroyo said. “This team, I feel like we can really do that.”
The favorite: Land O’Lakes. The Gators boast strong pitching and great defense. Three players — Josh Nissen, Jake Rawls and Zachary Whitaker — have pitched 18 innings with ERAs better than 2.40.
Don’t rule out: Mitchell. FSU commit Cobi Johnson has been one of the county’s breakout stars (.412 batting average, 81 strikeouts on the mound) and will be a force this month.
The favorite: Pasco. The Pirates rebounded from their 0-3 start under first-year coach Pat Fortunato. Senior Blaine Duncan has struck out at least 10 batters in four games, including a shutout victory over a solid Ridgewood team.
Don’t rule out: Ridgewood or Wesley Chapel. Ace Chase Ingram gives the Wildcats a good shot at their fourth playoff appearance since 2008. Ridgewood won the district crown last spring but has stumbled down the stretch in a wide-open district.
• Springstead star Brandon Brosher can get his team back to the playoffs but will have to get past an improved Central squad in a semifinal showdown in Class 6A, District 6.
• Wiregrass Ranch (Class 7A, District 9) has a good shot at its first playoff appearance thanks to ace Zach Drury. The Bulls split their season series against Gaither.
• Academy at the Lakes is the No. 2 seed in Class 2A, District 8 and also has a realistic opportunity for its first trip to the postseason.
District tournament schedule
Schedule: Monday — No. 4 Chamberlain vs. No. 5 Freedom, 7; Tuesday — No. 2 Gaither vs. No. 3 Wiregrass Ranch, 4; Chamberlain/Freedom winner vs. No. 1 Steinbrenner, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Schedule: Monday — No. 5 West Port at No. 4 Lecanto, 7; Tuesday — West Port/Lecanto winner vs. No. 1 Citrus, 5; No. 3 Springstead vs. No. 2 Central, 7:30; Thursday — final, 7
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 4 Sunlake vs. No. 5 Tarpon Springs, 7:30; Wednesday — No. 1 Land O'Lakes vs. Sunlake/Tarpon winner, 4:30; No. 2 Mitchell vs. No. 3 River Ridge, 7:30; Thursday — final, 7:30
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 4 Crystal River vs. No. 5 Nature Coast, 4; No. 3 Dunnellon vs. No. 6 Tavares, 7; Wednesday — No. 2 Hernando vs. Dunnellon/Tavares winner, 4; No. 1 Eustis vs. Crystal River/Nature Coast winner, 7; Friday — final, 7
Schedule: Monday — No. 2 Wesley Chapel vs. No. 7 Zephyrhills, 4:30; No. 1 Pasco vs. No. 8 Hudson, 8; Tuesday — No. 4 Fivay vs. No. 5 Gulf, 4:30; No. 3 Ridgewood vs. No. 6 Anclote, 7; Wednesday — Wesley Chapel/Zephyrhills winner vs. Ridgewood/Anclote winner, 4:30; Pasco/Hudson winner vs. Fivay/Gulf winner, 7; Friday — final, 7
Where: Mount Dora
Schedule: Monday — No. 4 Mount Dora vs. No. 5 Weeki Wachee, 6; Tuesday — No. 2 Trinity Catholic vs. No. 3 Umatilla, 4:30; No. 1 South Sumter vs. Mount Dora/Weeki winner, 7:15; Thursday — final, 7
Where: Tampa Prep
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 5 Seffner Christian vs. No. 4 Carrollwood Day, 7; Thursday — No. 3 Brooks DeBartolo vs. No. 2 Bishop McLaughlin, 4; Seffner/CDS winner vs. No. 1 Tampa Prep, 7; Friday — final, 7
Where: Interbay Little League
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 1 Cambridge Christian vs. No. 4 Tampa Bay Christian, 4; No. 3 Bayshore Christian vs. No. 2 Academy at the Lakes, 7; Thursday — final, 7