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Near-upset may be just what Leopards need
By BRANT JAMES
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2000
DADE CITY -- Teams do not learn to win as easily as they learn to lose. That may be the sole reason Hernando High will play in the region baseball tournament beginning Tuesday.
Hernando's 10-9 victory over 1-24 Wesley Chapel in the Class 3A, District 8 semifinals Wednesday was equal parts talent finally surfacing, luck and a young Wildcats team coming apart.
Nursing a 9-7 lead in the seventh, Wesley Chapel pitcher Kevin Cate began coming unbolted when he walked Nicky Westbrook with one out. Ball three bounced 5 feet behind Westbrook.
Four batters later, Chris Cole flicked a two-run, game-winning single to left to save Hernando major embarrassment and thwart a courageous effort by Wesley Chapel.
"We knew we had to keep the pressure on them," Hernando coach Tim Sims said. "It's one thing to play early in the game when you're the underdog. When it's time to step up, that's when teams tighten up. I've seen teams do it. I've seen us do it. That's what happened."
Wesley Chapel coach Steve Mumaw, who had been after his team all season to be ready for this game, knew the intangible taste of victory might have been the only element that denied his team its first district win.
"We have kids here that never played in high school before," he said. "You have to learn to win games like this at this level. Our kids don't know what it's like to win yet, but we're getting closer."
The loss may eventually reward both Hernando and Wesley Chapel. Mumaw thinks the game could spur the Leopards to play well the rest of the playoffs. It also earned Wesley Chapel respect.
The loss also cemented the image of Mumaw -- a former Devil Rays minor league pitching instructor -- as a mastermind. "Steve Mumaw is the best coach around here, and he just proved it," Sims said.
DUNN OUT: Hernando was without starting pitcher/designated hitter Jason Dunn -- and may be for longer -- after the junior cut his left (non-throwing) hand leaping a fence. Dunn required 15 stitches. A bandage prevented him from batting or wearing a glove.
HIT RECORDS: Cole broke the late Jerome Brown's 18-year-old single-season school hit record with the game-winner, setting a new standard at 50-and-counting. Junior Dee Brown, Jerome's son, has 48 after a first-inning home run -- his 14th of the season and an ever-growing school record.
"(The school) has a lot of people who played (Division I) and pro ball. Those records aren't fluky things," Sims said.
UNLIKELY HEROES: Hernando found salvation in strange places in its three-run seventh on Wednesday. Westbrook, a pitcher who has not taken batting practice or batted in a game all season, walked for the second time in two at-bats to start the rally with one out. Ozzie Whitten, a ninth-place hitter who barely hits his weight -- and he's rail-thin -- tapped a grounder over the middle and legged out a single. Hernando fans were calling loudly for a pinch-hitter before Whitten's at-bat, and Sims admitted he contemplated the move.
"But that turned out to be one of the bright spots that keeps you out here coaching," Sims said. "Here's a kid that never opens his mouth, does what he's asked, busts his butt. He'd practiced long and hard, and he deserved that at-bat and we gave it to him.
"He came through and I'm pleased for him. I gave him a hug at the end and told him he'd remember that one a long time."
BEAR DOWN: The district was different, and so were most of the players, but Central coach Gary Buel invoked the image of the Bears' 1999 Class 4A-8 title team to rally them to a 5-4 win over Pasco in Wednesday's 3A-8 semifinals.
"We were down 3-0 and I said, "Look, we are the defending champions,' " Buel said. "I told them we'd better start playing like it, whether it was different personnel or what."
Central rallied, as only Central can, with singles, walks, hit-and-runs, and bunts. Sean Steele executed a hit-and-run to perfection in the fourth, taking a Trey Evans pitch to right and knocking in two runs to tie the game 3-3.
Sophomores Thomas Lobianco and Tommy Skiles -- both pinch-running -- made a crucial, correct, joint decision in the fifth by advancing a base on a wild pitch. Both scored on a Jerad Brotherwood bloop single to right.
"Let's be honest. We don't hit," said Buel of a team that produced six hits, five of which were singles. "We need to move the infielders around and make plays on the bases. If those two sophomores don't take that extra base, we don't score on that hit. That was key. Crucial."
The Bears faced Hernando for the district title Thursday night.
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