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HomeSportsBaseballLeopards Chomp Sharks in Regional Semifinal

Leopards Chomp Sharks in Regional Semifinal

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BROOKSVILLE — On the bare-bones surface, Hernando High defeated Nature Coast 7-4 in the semifinal round of the Class 4A-Region 2 baseball tournament Saturday night.
 
But this game was about so much more. This game was about all that’s right with Hernando County high school baseball. Present, past and future.
 
Sure, Hernando rode a five-run second inning and held off multiple Nature Coast comeback efforts on the way to Tuesday night’s Class 4A-Region 2 championship against host Merritt Island. But that doesn’t come close to telling the whole deep story of what took place in front of an overflow crowd on an electric night at Nature Coast.

 

Two rivals stocked with kids who went to elementary school together and played youth league sports with and against each other squared off in a game that extended the season of a Hernando team that wasn’t expected to do much when the year began and ended an otherwise stellar year by Nature Coast. Two coaches (Hernando’s Tim Sims and Nature Coast’s Dan Garofano) with deep Hernando County ties and a ton of mutual respect for each other and the programs they lead. Two fan bases that brought the kind of intensity you’d expect from the crowd at an Indiana High School basketball game.
 
“High school baseball in this area, once again, proved it’s a big thing,” said Sims, who starred at Hernando in the early 1980s and went on to play at the University of Alabama before returning to his alma mater to begin a coaching career that still is going strong after more than 500 wins in 28 seasons.
 
“Obviously, it’s very disappointing to have it end this way,” said Garofano, who starred at Springstead High in the late 1980s when Hernando and Springstead were the only two high schools in a county that already was known for strong baseball. “But there’s a Hernando County representative in the Elite Eight, so that says a lot about the high school baseball in this county.”
 
In the fourth matchup of the season between the schools (Nature Coast won the previous three, including the district championship), Hernando jumped out early by using a formula that Sims likes to say he disdains even though he has used it to Hernando’s advantage from time to time through the years. He played what baseball people call “small ball” or what Sims likes to call “Ernie Ball”, a salute to his high school coach, the legendary Ernie Chatman.
 
After sophomore catcher Kaine Ellis doubled to get on base, sophomore shortstop Austin Knierim hit a double to score the run in the first inning to give Hernando a 1-0 lead. Sims turned to Chatman’s old tricks — the bunt, the walk and the stolen base — to manufacture another run early in the second inning. Then, Sims turned back to the type of power game he prefers as sophomore shortstop Austin Knierim cleared the bases with a three-run double to give Hernando a 5-0 lead and Eric O’Dell’s RBI single extended the lead.
 
Hernando High’s, 2, Austin Knierim contributed two doubles and four RBI in the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game versus Nature Coast. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]
Hernando High’s, 2, Austin Knierim contributed two doubles and four RBI in the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game versus Nature Coast. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]
 
The fact that Ellis, who drew an intentional walk immediately prior to Knierim’s shot, and Knierim are only sophomores tells you what you need to know about Hernando’s season. It began with low expectations after the Leopards lost 12 seniors, including ace pitcher Michael Savarese, to graduation after a 2023 season in which Hernando advanced to the Regional Final. Early on, the Leopards struggled and hovered just above .500 in the middle of the season. But a young team suddenly has grown up at just the right time.
 
Hernando, 19-9, now has won 11 of its last 13 games. Suddenly, with only four seniors playing significant roles Saturday night, the young Leopards have advanced at least as far as they did last year.
 
“We planted a stalk of corn early in the spring and didn’t really know how it would grow,” Sims said. “But, late in the spring, it really has grown. We went through adversity early and that has made us better. I think the biggest thing with this team is that it’s from the neck up. I tell them something now and they don’t just look right through me. They understand now. I mean we beat a very good Nature Coast team and we weren’t able to do that earlier in the season. ”
 
Hernando senior right-hander Ryan Miller, who pitched for Nature Coast the last three seasons, picked up the win. Miller held Nature Coast scoreless through the first three innings before running into trouble in the fourth inning as the Sharks climbed back into the game with an RBI single by Brice Hewell, an RBI double by Joseph Rozsa and a two-run single by Cody Wright.
 
But Miller rebounded to hold the Sharks scoreless over the next inning and one third before giving way to reliever Colten Cloud, who didn’t allow a run or a hit the rest of the game.
 
Along the way, things got intense, and it went far beyond the players. Members of Nature Coast’s football team occupied a large portion of the bleachers between home plate and third base. They grew increasingly vocal as the game went on and drew a warning from the umpire not to use the names of Hernando’s players in their cheers. On the other baseline, Hernando parents and fans took up the up-close space, but in the distance Hernando students made their presence vocally felt from the top bleachers of Nature Coast’s football stadium. As it all played out, former Springstead coach Chuck Moehle — in Orlando for his granddaughter’s high school graduation — texted a reporter for updates on the game that involved his former player (Garofano) and his long-time friend (Sims).
 
Hernando’s season will continue for at least another game and the future looks bright with a roster filled with sophomores and juniors.
 
“What do I know about Merritt Island?” Sims said. “Well, they’re the number-one-ranked team in a state with very good high school baseball. But, if you get to this late in the season, everyone that’s still playing is very good.”
 
Nature Coast ended its season 19-7.  Seniors Dylan Palmer, Dylane Demeza, Sean Keegan and Nate Leavitt will graduate. But the Sharks will return a strong nucleus, featuring junior pitcher Jackson Hoyt.
 
“It’s disappointing because we didn’t play well early and that hurt us,” Garofano said. “But, when you look at the season as whole, we won 19 games and a district championship. It stings right now. But, overall, it was a great season.”
 
Hernando High’s, 13, Bryce Saltsman was able to make a catch helping to keep the Nature Coast from sustaining a rally in the late innings of the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game at Nature Coast. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]
Hernando High’s, 13, Bryce Saltsman was able to make a catch helping to keep the Nature Coast from sustaining a rally in the late innings of the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game at Nature Coast. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]
Hernando High’s, 5, Colten Cloud pitched the final two innings and held the Sharks scoreless completing the 7-4 win in the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game versus Nature Coast. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]
Hernando High’s, 5, Colten Cloud pitched the final two innings and held the Sharks scoreless completing the 7-4 win in the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game versus Nature Coast. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]
Nature Coast Tech’s, 1, Cody Wright reacts after hitting a double as the Sharks attempted to come back versus Hernando High in the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]
Nature Coast Tech’s, 1, Cody Wright reacts after hitting a double as the Sharks attempted to come back versus Hernando High in the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]
Nature Coast Tech’s, 8, Sean Keegan opened on the mound for the home team in the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game versus Hernando High. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]
Nature Coast Tech’s, 8, Sean Keegan opened on the mound for the home team in the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game versus Hernando High. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]
Hernando High’s, 4, Ryan Miller got the start in the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game versus Nature Coast. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]
Hernando High’s, 4, Ryan Miller got the start in the FHSAA 4A Regional semifinal game versus Nature Coast. Photo by [Joseph Dicristofalo]

Patrick Yasinskas
Patrick Yasinskas
I am a sportswriter with more than 30 years' experience covering sports on all levels. I started out covering high schools, but have covered the NFL since 1993. I have won numerous awards, covered more than 20 Super Bowls and have been a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter three times. I began my career covering high school sports in Hernando County, which remains near and dear to me, for The Tampa Tribune from 1990 through 1992.
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