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Hernando limps into regional game against Keystone

By GREG AUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- One day before Hernando begins its expected run through the regional playoffs, the top third of the Leopards' lineup was missing in practice Monday.

It's a frightening thought for a team that's had four players dismissed and another leave the team in the past month.

Much of Hernando's success in today's regional quarterfinal against Keystone Heights will hinge on how quickly Chrissy Hartley, Nicole Young and Kimi Olmstead can recuperate from illness and injury.

"There's no sense being scared at this point," coach Ernie Chatman said of the prospect of playing without key players. "We can only do what we can do, and you can't worry about anything else. We've had adversity and problems all year long and we've overcome them."

Hartley was sick enough to miss school Monday, and Young wasn't feeling well enough to practice, either. Olmstead, who missed three weeks with tendinitis in her throwing shoulder, had the injury act up again over the weekend and left practice early.

With only 11 players on the roster, at least one of the three missing Monday would have to suit up to avoid a forfeit.

Chatman set up his contingency plan Monday, working infield drills with Carolyn Gant on the mound. Second baseman Kristi Langworthy shifted to shortstop and Jessica Maggard at second.

Assuming the Leopards can get healthy and advance past tonight's opener, their path to the final four looks to be considerably easier than that of Central, which opens its post-season at home against Palatka tonight at 7:30.

The Bears arguably have as tough a week ahead of them as any team in the Class 4A bracket. Post-season draws are a mix of geography and luck, and in the latter department, Hernando looks to have a decided edge.

The Leopards, 27-3 and No. 3 in the state, have just one other state-ranked team in its region -- No. 6 Alachua Santa Fe, which lost to Hernando earlier in the season. In addition, the three highest-ranked opponents (Miami Gulliver Prep, American Heritage and Key West) are lumped together in Region 4 and will knock each other out, allowing just one of those to advance to Auburndale.

Central (17-8) isn't as fortunate. In order to make it to the regional final for the second straight season, the Bears likely will first have to unseat the defending state champion, -- a Bartow team that ended Hernando's season in last year's Class 4A title game.

"We'll have to get past Bartow, but that's our last goal," coach Benny Martinez said. "They've lost games, and if they've lost games, we know they can be beaten. We've already accomplished the heavy-duty stuff."

If the Bears win, the road isn't much easier, with either No. 2 Lake Wales or a 29-2 Flagler Palm Coast team likely awaiting in the regional championship.

Of course, that's all looking ahead -- something neither squad would want to do, knowing their next loss is their last one of the season. Both teams have earned the right to open the playoffs at home, but neither of tonight's opponents looks to be a cake walk.

Central's foe, Palatka, looks to be tougher than its 19-9 record would indicate.

Three of those losses came against Flagler Palm Coast, including a 1-0 defeat in last week's district final, the lone run coming in the bottom of the seventh. Another three came from Jacksonville Arlington Country Day, 14-2-1 and ranked seventh in Class A.

"I definitely tried to schedule tough games against competitive programs," said Palatka coach Curt Smith.

Hernando's opponent, Keystone Heights (14-12), lost 2-0 to Gainesville Eastside in its district final -- a game that was a scoreless tie until the bottom of the sixth inning. Keystone started the season 1-6, doomed by poor fielding, but has turned its record around by cleaning up its defense.

"We were beating ourselves at the beginning of the season," coach Kathy Smith said. "We would have three or four errors that would cost us a game. Interlachen beat us, and Interlachen never beats us. We just couldn't play ball."

Keystone's turnaround started with winning at spring break tournament at Disney, and now Smith cites her team's defense as its strength.

Starting pitcher Belinda Smith (10-8, 0.32 ERA) is one of the club's top hitters, but look out for eighth-grader Angii Verbeelen, who starts at third base and could pitch in a pinch.

* * *

CLASS 4A, REGION 2

WHO: Central (17-8) vs. Palatka (19-9).

WHEN: Today, 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Central.

HOW MUCH? Admission is $5.

LAST YEAR: Central was a district runner-up but won its first two playoff games before losing to Hernando in the regional final at Tom Varn Park.

DIRECTIONS: From Brooksville, take State Road 50 to Sunshine Grove Road. Turn right, and after about two miles, take the first right, Ken Austin Parkway. The school is on the left, and the softball field is past the school, on the left.

* * *

CLASS 3A, REGION 2

WHO: Hernando (27-3) vs. Keystone Heights (14-12).

WHEN: Today, 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Tom Varn Park, Brooksville.

HOW MUCH? Admission is $5.

LAST YEAR: Hernando has won four straight district titles and made it to the Class 4A state championship game last season, losing to Bartow.

DIRECTIONS: The stadium is on West Jefferson Street, just west of downtown Brooksville, next to Florida Boys Barbeque and the Jerome Brown Community Center.

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