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Leopards try to lift 'weighing factor'

Hernando struggles to block visions of its regional loss.

By BRANT JAMES

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- Whatever happens to Hernando this season, the Leopards will be able to trace their fortunes back to last May and a 9-8 loss to Eustis in a Class 3A Region 2 semifinal.

Hernando players lay sprawled -- as if physically injured -- on Eustis' field, moments after blowing their fourth lead of the game in the bottom of the seventh to the eventual state champion.

Whether the Leopards missed their one opportunity to reach the Florida Finals with all-state center fielder Dee Brown on that night, or developed the hunger to do so this year, has to be answered.

Either way, the loss jangles around in coach Tim Sims' belly.

"That Eustis loss is really a weighing factor," said Sims, who saw Brown and Chris Cole, a .520 hitter, go 0-for-7 in the game.

"We should have won," Sims said. "We gift-wrapped it."

Hernando's pitching appears even better than its 21-14 team from last year, with senior Jason Dunn (7-5, 1.79 earned run average) bolstered by Springstead transfer J.T. Fobell (6-1, 3.83).

Throw in Brad Wyatt (1-1, 3.34), who fired a no-hitter as a freshman last season, Nicky Westbrook (5-3, 5.39) and Willie Fifer (1-0, 2.80) and the Leopards have a staff Sims feels "very comfortable with."

Hernando unlikely is to reproduce a team-record .341 batting average, especially with Cole gone.

Senior Brown (.515 batting average), will need lineup protection from Dunn (.422), and senior first baseman Stephen Blanton (.364, 9 home runs).

The dilemma is defensive, where Hernando must replace its catcher (Cole), second baseman (Drew Innes) until wrestling season ends, and shortstop (Denis Hernandez).

Dunn will move from third to short. Sophomore Jake Oleson takes over at second. Senior Greg Shaw and junior Ben Bunn are competing for the catcher spot.

"We have a good senior nucleus," Sims said, "but we could be very good or very average."

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