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Despite a plethora of new starters, the Leopards like their chances this season.
By DAVID MURPHY
Published August 25, 2006
Every now and then, an expression will appear on Matt Smith's face, usually when he doesn't want to articulate exactly what is going through his mind. The Hernando coach's eyebrows will raise, and his lips will twist into a wry grin, and he'll say "I don't know" or "We'll see" or something else that is either unenlightening or politically correct.
That expression was on Smith's face on a smoldering Tuesday afternoon in early August as he sat in the air-conditioned coach's office at Tom Fisher Stadium and confronted the facts facing his team.
Nine new starters on offense.
Six new starters on defense.
A quarterback competition between two kids who have never started a varsity game at the position.
"We'll see," he said.
Then the eyebrows rose. And the grin crept across his face.
August is a time for optimism, and at Hernando High, that feeling abounds. Despite the 4-7 record the Leopards posted last year, despite the 61-10 shellacking they suffered in the first round of the playoffs, despite the 20 seniors they graduated, there is a feeling this team could be better.
Though Smith would prefer teams like Springstead and Central and Nature Coast focus on some of the Leopards' perceived shortcomings - the loss of senior running backs Fabian Jackson and James Thomas, for example - his players aren't shy about their outlook for this season.
"We're going to be a lot better," junior linebacker Taylor Rotunda said excitedly after a break in practice. "I can just feel it."
The feeling, according to Rotunda, is one that started in the wake of Hernando's 61-10 loss to North Marion in the playoffs. The Leopards earned their playoff birth by virtue of a second-place finish in Class 3A, District 6. Though they were manhandled by a North Marion team that advanced to the state semifinals, the game gave Hernando their first taste of the postseason since 2002.
"We were happy to be there, but we wished we would have done better," Rotunda said. "We wanted to go farther. At least we made it there, but we're planning on going a lot farther this year."
If the Leopards get back to the playoffs, they'll have done it as a younger, smaller and quicker team. All five starters on the offensive line are gone. Junior Jason Davies and junior Lamon Neal spent the early part of preseason practice battling for the right to succeed Kyle Sizemore at quarterback.
Running backs Thomas and Jackson are gone, but Hernando is confident that senior Robert Smith can fill the void.
"Robert Smith is the backbone of this team," Davies said.
A big test will come in the season opener vs. Central. Last year, the Bears trounced the Leopards 33-0 on opening night.
"It's important for us and our coaching staff," Matt Smith said. "It's important to get off to a good start."
Which, they hope, eventually will translate into a better ending.