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Leopards brace for Eagles

Hernando must get past No. 2 Astronaut to equal its deepest post-season run.

By GREG AUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


Hernando hasn't found itself in the role of underdog often this season, but when the Leopards travel across the state to face Titusville Astronaut on Saturday night, that's exactly what they will be.

With a victory, Hernando will match the deepest playoff run in school history, reaching the final four for the third time. Getting there won't be easy, though.

"It's a big, tall order," coach Rodney Byrd said Thursday, two days after an emotional 52-50 overtime win against Green Cove Springs Clay.

To elaborate on that order: Astronaut (30-1) was a state runner-up last year and is ranked second in Class 4A, with its only loss coming against No. 1 Bradenton Southeast.

The only state-ranked opposition Hernando has seen resulted in a pair of losses to South Sumter, second in Class 3A. Astronaut has knocked a Winter Haven team out of a No. 1 ranking and picked up an overtime win against Miami Edison when it was 10th nationally.

"There really is no key to stopping us," Astronaut coach Gregg Hostetler said. "You just better be better than we are."

There's a bad precedent between the two schools. Hernando's football team made the same trip in November and was handed a humbling 57-0 loss.

The biggest challenge for Hernando (22-3) in this basketball game will be handling a full-time full-court press that shredded a solid Hudson squad 68-30 in Tuesday's regional semifinal.

Hostetler said his club isn't overly athletic or towering, but depth and defense have gotten it done -- enough so that the War Eagles might be better than the Astronaut team he coached to a state title in 1991.

"We can see the light at the end of the tunnel now," Hostetler said.

"The girls' focus is really on Lakeland (next week's final four site), so we're trying to keep them focused on what we need to do now to get there," he said.

Astronaut's leading scorer is 6-foot senior forward Jennifer Clark, one of two players averaging in double figures in a balanced lineup.

The sparkplug, especially in the pressing defense, is senior Kayla Sheldon, who Hostetler described as "our Energizer bunny, always going and going and going" and averaging more than four steals a game.

Hernando has had consistently dominating play from junior forward Bernice Mosby, but Byrd said it is important that his guards make an offensive statement early, as they did in against Clay.

Junior Ellen Widboom drilled a pair of three-pointers in the first quarter, and sophomore Kristi Langworthy hit another, forcing the Clay defense to not collapse on the frontcourt.

"If it's not balanced, if we just go inside, inside, inside, then defenses are going to sag everything in there and deny us the pass," Byrd said. "The perimeter players hit some big shots, and that keeps the defense honest."

Mosby sprained her right ankle late in the Clay game but has been able to practice this week and should be ready to play Saturday.

The Leopards, one of only two unranked teams among the eight alive in the 4A field, will take a chartered bus for the three-hour trip due east for the 7:30 p.m. tipoff.

Saturday's winner will advance to play Thursday in Lakeland against the winner of Saturday's game between Belle Glade Glades Central and No. 4 Fort Lauderdale.

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