BROOKSVILLE - A half hour after East Lake defeated Ridgewood on Saturday to win its second straight Tom Varn Invitational title, Hernando manager Tim Sims was locking up Emerson Field.
His players had spent the evening watching from the pressbox or working in the concession stand.
Yet, Sims barely could contain his excitement.
"This was a great week for Hernando baseball," Sims said.
Hernando (2-1) didn't make it past the semifinal round of the 16-team tournament. But then, the inexperienced Leopards didn't expect to.
Despite using five pitchers who never had previously thrown a varsity inning, Hernando won two of three games and came within a victory of playing for the championship. The Leopards defeated Gulf 7-3 and Hudson 7-6 before running out of pitching in a 12-1 loss to East Lake.
"They didn't play scared," Sims said. "They are inexperienced kids, so I was worried they'd come out very tentative and none of the kids did. They came out very aggressive and relaxed, and we were very pleased with it."
All in all, county teams made strong showings.
Springstead (2-1) beat Mitchell and Hudson before losing to East Lake. Central (1-2) bounced back from a one-run loss to Pasco to defeat Nature Coast Tech before falling to a Wesley Chapel team it beat in the Preseason Diamond Classic at Zephyrhills. And first-year Nature Coast (0-3) never stopped battling in lopsided losses to Ridgewood, Central and River Ridge.
"We learned that we've got a lot of heart," Nature Coast coach Dan Garofano said. "We're not going to quit. We're going to keep on battling, and the kids really want to get better and are improving, which is all I can ask right now."
Sims sought similar signs after losing pitchers to moves (Jake Johnston), injury (Caleb Marion) and academic ineligibility (Fred Farmer). He was pleased with what he saw from Andrew Boyer, who picked up the victory against Gulf; James Johnson, who earned the save against Hudson; and Mike Bedwell, who pitched well in relief.
Infielders Matthew Blanton and Ben Robinson made diving stops, and Blanton picked up four hits against Hudson. Leadoff batter Seth Noe had a hit in all three games and was plunked by pitches four times in the tournament.
Their work at the plate was especially important since middle-of-the-order hitters Johnson, Monte Ketchum and Jeff Oleson struggled.
"Our better hitters didn't hit the ball for three games the way they're capable of, and we got two wins out of that," Sims said. "So an area of strength for us would be swinging the bat."
Central's Eric Paul batted .400 and played flawlessly at third base, coach Jim Jensen said. Steve Ramirez pitched a four-hit complete game against Nature Coast.
Terry Meaney hit .500 and Lowell Bebout .400 for Nature Coast. Second baseman Ryan Erbe made a diving stop of a line drive to start an unassisted double play against River Ridge.
Springstead's Chris Pape was the winning pitcher in a 5-3 victory over Hudson and drove home the go-ahead run in a 2-1 win over Mitchell.
- Frank Pastor can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1430.