VERO BEACH — For two innings Thursday morning, Hernando had everything go its way in the Class 5A state semifinals at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex.
Leopards ace Ali Shenefield started the game by retiring the side, two via strikeouts. In the top of the second inning, Hernando stayed patient at the plate and loaded the bases. Shenefield followed by drawing a walk to bring home Nakayla Roberts.
That gave the Leopards a 1-0 lead over four-time defending state champion and nationally ranked Coral Springs Charter.
Any hope of a monumental upset ended an inning later.
The Panthers scored five runs, all unearned, in the third. It was more than enough for Coral Springs Charter to cruise to a 6-1 victory.
“The game got a little quick for us and you could tell,” Hernando coach Kevin Bittinger said. “They did exactly what a good team is going to do. They tried to speed up the game and it worked. One tough inning, and that’s really it. I’m so proud of my girls. They stayed in it. They competed. I know they were struggling and kept looking up at the scoreboard. We had opportunities, still. They kept fighting.”
The Panthers, ranked seventh in MaxPreps’ national poll, apply pressure on offense by staying aggressive on the basepaths. They had 108 stolen bases entering Thursday’s semifinal.
And when Coral Springs Charter runners decide to get their britches dirty, they make it count. The Panthers were only caught stealing four times. Leopards catcher Taliyah Dowdell made it five when she picked off a runner trying to steal third in the second inning.
That did not deter the Panthers. They finished with five stolen bases, including two from Kiara Meikle and one at home from Auburn signee Lindsey Garcia.
That speed has helped Coral Springs Charter (28-1) win 27 straight games. On Friday, the Panthers will try to win their fifth straight state title, which would tie them with Bartow for the state’s longest streak. Garcia and Sara Berthiaume (Florida Atlantic signee), who have played at Coral Springs Charter since eighth grade, can become the first players from Florida to win five state titles in their careers.
Hernando (27-4), which was playing in the semifinals for the first time since 2001, thrived in the role of the underdog. The Leopards won three straight postseason games on the road as a district runnerup to get to Vero Beach.
And they had their chances Thursday.
Trouble was, Hernando stranded too many runners. The Leopards left five on base through the first two innings and nine overall.
“A single here, a blooper here, maybe it’s a different story,” Bittinger said. “We had chances.”
The loss marked the end of Shenefield’s remarkable pitching career.
The senior amassed a whopping 361 strikeouts heading into the semifinal, the second-highest single-season total of any pitcher in the state since MaxPreps started compiling softball statistics in 2005. She needed just 18 more to tie the state leader, Plant City ace (and travel ball teammate) Ashley Blessin.
Shenefield recorded nine strikeouts and finished with 370 this season.
“I felt I did well,” Shenefield said of Thursday’s performance. “That third inning was a little bit of a hot mess all over. But we’re here. We made it farther than any Hernando team in a long time. It’s just big for our school and for Brooksville to get here.”