EUSTIS — The third time was a charm for second-seeded Hernando as the Leopards took the Class 5A, District 7 crown by defeating top-seeded Eustis 5-2 Friday night.
The Leopards had lost to Eustis (21-8, 11-1) in the previous two regular-season meetings.
Hernando catcher Jake Johnson went 3-for-4 with four RBIs. Pitcher Trae Ratliff kept the potent Panthers’ lineup in check as he tossed a complete game and fanned 11 Eustis batters, while only walking one.
“Jake Johnson was absolutely clutch at the plate,” Leopards coach Tim Sims said. “Ratliff dominated tonight, no doubt about it. … If he’s zoned in like he was tonight, he’s as tough of a guy as there is in the state.”
After two scoreless innings Hernando (22-5, 10-2) struck the first blow in the top of the third when Johnson laced a double that scored Christian Arroyo. The Leopards took a 2-0 lead in the fourth when Eloy Ramirez hit an RBI single.
Eustis battled back in the bottom of the fourth when Zac Johnson crushed a solo home run to cut the lead in half. With runners at first and third, Panthers catcher Chris Okey darted home when Johnson tried to pick off a Eustis runner trying to steal second.
The Leopards retook the lead in the fifth when Johnson blasted a home run over the leftfield fence. He added another RBI single in the sixth for a 5-2 advantage.
“For some reason our energy level was high tonight,” Johnson said. “Trae Ratliff threw the game of his life against one of the best offensive teams in the state, and I’m really proud of him. They came back and tied it up. … We knew they were going to show up some time as good as they are, and you can’t keep your head down in this game.”