The Hernando Leopards Softball team (24-4) outlasted the Santa Fe Raiders (16-10) by a 5-2 margin on Tuesday night at Tom Varn Park. Thanks in large part to a gutsy performance from Senior Pitcher Ava Braswell, the home team rode a five-score second inning to victory in the regional semifinals of the 2023 FHSAA Softball State Championships. After locking up the twelfth straight win with his squad stretching back to the beginning of April, Coach Kevin Bittinger broke down how the Leopards came out victorious in the matchup.
“We came out swinging the bats real well,” Coach Bittinger said. “Got fortunate there, I think, in the second or third, got a few runs, and we held on. We didn’t play great I don’t think, but I think when we needed to, when our backs were against the wall, we made a pitch or made a play, and that was the difference. I haven’t looked at the book yet, but I think they left a lot of runners on. So, when we needed to, we took care of business.”
The first inning and a half came and went without much incident, but then the fireworks went off for the Purple and Gold. Junior Carolanne McClelland and Senior Sydney Cline got on base by way of a walk and single, respectively, before a sacrifice bunt by Junior Samantha Thompson set the stage and advanced the runners to second and third. On the next at-bat, McClelland was the first Leopard to make it across home plate, thanks to the Raider’s catcher being unable to corral the ball when it was thrown her way.
Two at-bats later, Cline and Junior Tiarra Edwards scored on a pop fly by Senior Aryanna Eliopoulos down the third base line. Conveniently for the home team, the visitors were unable to snag the ball that seemed to hang in the air, and this allowed the Leopards to seize a three-score lead. The home team was not finished, though, as Senior Hannah Taylor punctuated the inning with a two-run home run. Just like that, the Leopards jumped out to a sudden 5-0 advantage, but the Raiders were not about to roll over.
Though it was not immediate, the visitors would find their footing with a two-run frame in the fifth to make Hernando’s lead far less comfortable. After back-to-back doubles and two quick scores by Sophomore Breleigh Ford and Junior Amy Crosby, the Raiders appeared to be figuring out Braswell. She would do what she has done all season, however, as she delivered a strikeout, and another batter was thrown out at first on consecutive at-bats to get out of the inning and out of the jam. The talented senior also stranded multiple runners on bases in the third, fourth, and sixth innings to lead the Leopards to a 5-2 victory.
“That was huge just to get the complete game,” Coach Bittinger said. “No one’s as tough on Ava as Ava is herself. She’s just so critical of herself, and sometimes that can work a little bit of a negative. Sometimes – we talk about this – you’re not going to be great, you’re not going to be perfect… When they had base runners on and two outs, she made a great pitch, took care of business. Some of their top hitters, we were able to kind of limit what they could do because Ava executed. When she hits her spots, she’s tough.”
While Santa Fe’s year is in the books, the Leopards will continue their strong season in the regional finals against Montverde Academy. It is the third year many of Hernando’s players have made it to this round of the postseason, so the coaching staff will likely leverage that experience with more consistent scoring against the Eagles on Friday evening.
“We got to score, score, score, keep scoring, keep scoring, put pressure on them, and continue to put pressure on,” Coach Bittinger said. “We’re experienced… Just be confident and know we’ve got the goods. Just execute at the plate, in the circle, in the field, and I think we’re going to be all right.”