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No more growing pains

Maturity and chemistry issues are a thing of the past for the loaded Leopards.

By DAVID MURPHY
Published February 16, 2007


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BROOKSVILLE - The enormity of what Hernando accomplished by knocking off five-time defending state champion Bartow in its season opener last week was not lost on the Leopards.

"Hopefully," senior centerfielder/pitcher Katelyn Vanderham said, "we don't get a big head."

Considering Vanderham was in sixth grade that last time Bartow didn't win a state title, keeping the ego in check might be difficult. But Hernando coach Kevin Bittinger doesn't seem concerned, nor, it seems, do his players. The entire team thinks the ability to keep a level head is the chief reason the Leopards might be contending for a title by the end of the season.

If you listen to them tell it, Hernando was its own worst enemy last season, when an immensely talented team finished 17-9 and was upset by Springstead in the district tournament. Despite the hitting and pitching of Vanderham the then-junior hit .555 with 35 RBIs and went 7-4 with a 1.67 ERA on the mound and a lineup that was as deep as it was powerful, the Leopards went just 1-9 in games in which they trailed.

"That's a horrible stat," Bittinger said.

The problem, the second-year coach said, is that for all their physical prowess, the Leopards were weak-minded. They were young. They were undisciplined. And there were some team chemistry issues.

This year, Bittinger is convinced, will be different.

As evidence, he offers up the win over Bartow and subsequent win over Gulf. In both games, the Leopards overcame a deficit to win in the top of the seventh, giving them twice as many come-from-behind victories as they recorded all of last year.

"I think it shows they've matured a lot as a team," Bittinger said. "I think these girls have a whole new mental toughness about them."

They also have a new first basemen in senior Alex Gaffney, a transfer from Central who was one of the few bright spots for the Bears last season. Bittinger said she has made several key plays at third base, and her presence behind Vanderham in the lineup (Vanderham bats fourth, Gaffney fifth) gives the Leopards a heart of the order that is downright scary.

"You can't pitch around Vanderham now," Bittinger said.

Not that the senior is the Leopards' only star. Shortstop Chelsea Chipoletti and second baseman Katie Geiger each hit over .400 last season, and twins Erica and Demi Maldonado give the team plenty of speed at the top of the lineup.

But most important is the way the team's talent seems to be co-existing.

"I think as a team we've finally jelled," Vanderham said. "I think we're going to play really well together."

David Murphy can be reached at dmurphy@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1407.

[Last modified February 15, 2007, 23:21:48]


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