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Preps

22 homers has team on brink of state

By FRANK PASTOR
Published May 18, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - Few plays change momentum so quickly. Fewer still penetrate a pitcher's psyche so deeply.

But there is nothing glamorous about hitting home runs at Hernando.

"When they hit home runs in batting practice, they've got to go chase them," coach Tim Sims said.

Hernando (15-14), which plays Orlando Bishop Moore (26-3) in today's Class 3A, Region 2 final, has 22 this season, including six since the start of the district tournament.

An ability to hit the ball out of the park is among the biggest reasons the Leopards are one win from their first state semifinal berth since 1967.

"I think it's played a big role," senior Andrew Boyer said.

But they're not the product of design.

Though Hernando's home runs are a lot for a high school team, they're nowhere near the state record of 60 held by Zephyrhills and not even halfway to the Leopards' high of 58 in 2000.

"Coach has told us we're not the power hitters," Boyer said. "We're probably the base-hitting group, and I think we've surprised him with how many home runs we've hit this year. But as far as we know, we're just doing our jobs and getting the ball in play."

Hernando doesn't teach home-run hitting. Sims asks only that his players hit the ball hard, preferably on a line from gap to gap. The only thing batting coach Donnie Whitehead preaches is "getting a quality hack."

Players have two strikes to swing away. The third is for the team, a shortened-up, two-strike stroke meant only to put the ball in play.

"They get their two hacks and we get our one," Whitehead said. "When they get their two, they've taken advantage of it."

Home runs are the result of getting ahead in counts, paying attention to pitchers' tendencies and taking advantage of opportunities, Whitehead said.

Six Hernando players have hit home runs this season. Cleanup hitter James Johnson has seven. Sophomore outfielder Monte Ketchum hit three in his first six games, then did not have another until Friday's region semifinal, when he hit two.

Boyer has three, Matthew Blanton and Jeff Oleson two each, Eric Neal one.

Though he acknowledged he has worked to keep his weight back, giving him more power, Johnson said he's only looking for a base hit when he goes to the plate.

"Nobody really even talks about (home runs)," Johnson said. "They just happen, I guess."

Seemingly, when they're needed most.

Oleson hit a grand slam in an 8-4 victory over South Sumter in the district semifinals, and Johnson had two home runs in a 9-5 win over Pasco in the final.

Boyer's first-inning homer put Hernando on the board in Friday's region semifinal against Florida Air Academy, and Ketchum's two round-trippers helped the Leopards to a 14-9 victory.

Though they aren't expected, nothing enlivens a dugout or sinks a pitcher's spirits more quickly.

"The home run is the toughest thing mentally for a pitcher to deal with," Sims said. "That's a dagger in the heart, and you're twisting it with a home run."

- Frank Pastor can be reached at 800 333-7505, ext. 1430. Send e-mail to pastor@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 17, 2004, 20:34:39]


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