BROOKSVILLE — Kevin Bittinger’s debut as a tournament director did not go exactly as planned.
Nine years ago, the Hernando High softball coach put together an eight-team field at Tom Varn Park.
Weeks before the tournament was set to begin, Hernando Parks and Recreation director Mike Walker informed Bittinger of a scheduling conflict. Turns out, there was a dog-in-the-park event the same weekend.
So the inaugural Leopard Softball Slam had to be moved — to Pasco County.
Scrambling for a new site, Bittinger ended up scheduling games at Zephyrhills High.
“There were definitely a few bumps to get over when we first started,” Bittinger said.
Since then, the tournament has become a softball staple in Hernando County.
And it keeps bigger — and better.
This year’s field has 16 teams, five of which are ranked in the top 15 in the area by the Tampa Bay Times.
Bittinger, now in his 14th season as coach at Hernando, used to travel all over the state in search of quality competition. He even went to Tallahassee during spring break to play in tournaments.
That gave Bittinger an idea.
“I thought it would be great to have teams come here for a tournament,” Bittinger said. “We have Tom Varn Park, a tremendous facility, right in our backyard. It just made sense.”
Aside from the initial scheduling snafu, the games have been held at Tom Varn’s three fields. Bittinger puts together the schedule much like a travel tournament with teams typically playing games within a short time span to prevent long layovers.
For the first few years, the bracket was confined mostly to teams in Hernando and Pasco.
Both counties have made tremendous strides in softball. Academy at the Lakes and Land O’ Lakes have both won state titles in recent seasons. Hernando, which is off to a 7-0 start this season, has advanced to the region final twice during that span. River Ride has been a consistent state contender.
The success has provided greater exposure for North Suncoast softball, in turn making the tournament an attractive option for teams elsewhere. For example, Chamberlain had played in Palm Harbor University’s annual spring break tournament for years. This season, the Chiefs decided to play in the Leopard Softball Slam for the first time.
“We decided to go to this tournament because we hardly ever get to play those teams up in Hernando and Pasco during the regular season,” Chamberlain coach Bobby Diez said. “I’ve followed them for years and know they have great programs, so it’s a chance to go up there and do something different.”
Diez said the timing also could not have been better.
Usually, he gives his players the week off during spring break. The Chiefs then reconvene the final weekend of their break for a tournament.
“Our last game was March 12,” Diez said. “It worked out perfect the way the break fell because we gave them a full week off before practicing Wednesday and Thursday to get ready for the tournament. We’ll see how we perform but the girls have been working hard since fall workouts so it’s nice to give them a little break at the halfway point of the season.”
Bittinger said playing so many tough teams at the tournament prepares his team for the kind of competition it will see in the postseason.
“We can’t control who is in our district,” Bittinger said. “So we have to schedule as many strong teams as we can during the regular season, and this tournament certainly does help.”
Leopard Softball Slam
Where: Tom Varn Park, 301 Darby Lane, Brooksville
Host: Hernando High
Friday: Hernando vs. East Bay, 9 a.m.; Crystal River vs. Sickles, 9 a.m.; Nature Coast vs. Mitchell, 9 a.m.; Hernando vs. Palmetto, 11 a.m.; Crystal River vs. Pasco, 11 a.m.; Nature Coast vs. Seminole, 11 a.m.; East Bay vs. Palmetto, 1 p.m.; Sickles vs. Pasco, 1 p.m.; Mitchell vs. Bloomingdale, 1 p.m.; Chamberlain vs. River Ridge, 3 p.m.; Springstead vs. Ridgeview, 3 p.m.; Seminole vs. Steinbrenner, 3 p.m.; Chamberlain vs. West Port, 5 p.m.; Springstead vs. Wiregrass Ranch, 5 p.m.; Bloomingdale vs. Steinbrenner, 5 p.m.; River Ridge vs. West Port, 7 p.m.; Ridgeview vs. Wiregrass Ranch, 7 p.m.
Saturday: (teams are seeded after Friday) Games every two hours starting at 8 a.m. and wrapping up with the final at 8 p.m.