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One of the Most Overachieving Squads in Leopard History

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MERRITT ISLAND — In the right-field grass of Clint Hurdle Stadium late Tuesday night, they gathered one final time as a team.

A team that, when hindsight has a chance to settle in, won’t be remembered for one bad game or one brutal inning.

Sure, Hernando High’s baseball season had just ended in the most unflattering of ways. The 10-run mercy rule was applied as Merritt Island exploded for seven sixth-inning runs on the way to a 10-0 victory against the Leopards in the Class 4A-Region 2 championship game.

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It may take a few days or weeks for the sting to wear off. But, when all is said and done, the 2024 team will be remembered as one of the most overachieving squads in Hernando’s glorious history,
The Leopards graduated 12 seniors from a 2023 team that was virtually untouchable until running into a North Marion buzzsaw in a regional semifinal. Naturally, expectations weren’t high when this season started and the Leopards started slowly. At midseason, they were hovering just above .500.

But that’s about the time when a team, which appeared to be way too young to do much of anything, suddenly started to grow up. The Leopards won 11 of their last 14 games and pulled playoff upsets against powerhouses Orlando Bishop Moore and Nature Coast.

“I’m ecstatic with how far this group came from where we were when we started the season,” Hernando coach Tim Sims said. “This was a great group of kids and they should be proud of what they did. I know I’m proud of them for what they did.”

What Hernando (19-10) did was make a deep playoff run that took the Leopards one round further than last year’s senior-heavy squad went. One win away from a berth in the state’s final four, Hernando looked the part of a strong playoff team for the first five innings as senior pitcher Colten Cloud more than held his own in a duel with Merritt Island’s Nick Wimberly. Merritt Island entered the game ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 4A and Wimberly has been one of the state’s top pitchers.

Although Cloud ran into trouble in a third inning in which Merritt Island scored three runs on three walks, a hit and a Hernando throwing error, he kept the Leopards close. But Wimberly, who will pitch for Florida Atlantic University next season, kept Hernando’s bats quiet all night. Wimberly struck out 10 and carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning before Bryce Saltsman and Austin Knierim delivered Hernando’s only two hits of the game.

It wasn’t like Hernando didn’t have chances to get on the scoreboard. Using three walks (including an intentional pass to Kaine Ellis), the Leopards loaded the bases in the third inning. And Saltsman and Knierim gave Hernando a good opportunity to score in the fifth inning.

But Hernando came up empty both times.

“You make things happen when you put the bat on the ball,” Sims said. “And we didn’t do enough of that when it mattered. But I tip my hat to Wimberly. You’re going to see some good pitching when you get this far into the playoffs and he showed why he’s one of the best in the state.”

Cloud allowed only three hits while pitching into the sixth inning. “Colten gave us everything we could possibly expect out of him,” Sims said. “Whatever college he ends up at will be getting one heck of a pitcher and person.”

Cloud walked the leadoff batter in the sixth inning and that’s when Sims decided to make a pitching change. As soon as that happened, the whole complexion of the game changed and it wasn’t for the better.

Senior right-hander Carter Caraynoff, who had pitched well all season, replaced Cloud and ran into trouble immediately. While not recording an out, Caraynoff issued three walks (including two with the bases loaded) and gave up a bunt single as Merritt Island extended its lead to 5-0.

Sims likes to say, “Hernando men don’t make excuses.” But the world needs to know something. If anyone ever had a legitimate excuse for a rough outing, it was Caraynoff.

On Monday night, Caraynoff was at a hospital emergency room with a 104-degree fever.

A pair of relief pitchers followed Caraynoff and fared no better as Merritt Island sent 14 batters to the plate in the sixth inning. After Merritt Island built its lead to 9-0, Toren Dunegan delivered an RBI single to bring the game — and Hernando’s season — to an end.

Despite the bitter finish, Sims stood in front of his team on that right-field grass and told his players he is as proud of them as he is any of group he’s coached in 28 seasons at Hernando.

As the players headed somberly to the parking lot and a long ride home, Sims grew emotional as he stood near where he addressed the Leopards and talked about the eight seniors that won’t be back. Although Saltsman, Cloud, Caraynoff and Ryan Miller were the only members of the class to get significant playing time this season, Sims said Hernando’s deep playoff run would not have been possible without the leadership provided by all eight seniors.

Sims wasn’t in the mood to do a lot of looking forward right away. But it’s no secret that Hernando has the nucleus, led by sophomores Ellis and Knierim, to be very good in 2025.

“I promise you that Kaine Ellis, Austin Knierim and (junior first baseman) Eric O’Dell and the rest of them are going to remember very well what happened tonight,” Sims said. “They will learn from what happened and they’ll be motivated by it and, in the future, they’ll be better because of it.”

Hernando High’s 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 Austin Knierim contributed two doubles and four RBI 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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