In massive thriller, Hernando almost pulls off major upset

Photography by Cheryl Clanton

For the first time in five years, the Hernando Leopards varsity football program was one of the 32 teams selected in the 5A class of the FHSAA playoffs. This time around, the team was district champions, riding a 7-2 record to 38 points in the new system. On Friday night at Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium, fans packed the stands to watch Hernando take on their opponent in the first round, the Clay Blue Devils, who are located roughly three hours from Brooksville.

What transpired during this game arguably made it the game of the first round.

Coming in as 28-point underdogs to the visiting Blue Devils, the Leopards (7-3) took their first lead of the game with just under eight minutes remaining, but the resulting time made Clay look like a team full of Aaron Rodgers with two timeouts and the two-minute warning remaining to drive the length of the field and win the game.

HHS Noah Batten tackles Clay player

Riding behind their workhorse back of senior Aundre Carter, Clay did just that, driving the length of the field and punching it in from one yard out with 3:54 remaining in the game. Hernando had one final shot at potentially regaining the lead, but a Boston Tafelski pass intended for Ygenio Booker was intercepted at midfield by senior cornerback Jordan Copeland. Clay would run out the clock shortly after.

For the Leopards, the team gained 386 yards and had 5 penalties for 50 yards. The Blue Devils gained 486 yards, and had 9 penalties for 71 yards. Many of their penalties would’ve stalled plenty of other program’s drives, but Clay had a tank in the backfield. Carter outgained everybody playing Friday night, rushing for 279 yards on 30 carries, adding three touchdowns to boot.

Red zone efficiency was also key, as Hernando went a perfect 5-for-5 with four touchdowns and a 26-yard field goal by Luke D’Ambrosio to close out the half, while Clay went 5-for-6 with five touchdowns and a turnover on downs from inside the five (more on that below). Each team had an extra point try fail due to low snaps that couldn’t be properly contained by the holder.

Hernando High head coach Bill Vonada, whose last appearance in the postseason was at Springstead in 2013, which led to a regional final loss at Armwood, was upset at the loss, but incredibly proud of his team. “This was a great group of guys that bought in. We didn’t play a perfect game, but we held our own with one of the more storied programs in this state”, Vonada said afterwards.

HHS 26 Israel Fields falls with the ball against Clay

On the side of the home team, Friday’s first round game essentially turned into the Ygenio Booker show. In his first high school playoff appearance, the senior wide receiver was arguably the best athlete on the team, therefore making him the Leopard’s best shot at pulling off the upset. He delivered almost every single time, rushing for 92 yards and a touchdown while catching 5 passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. Many of his catches were done in man coverage with only one guy covering him, and Booker went full-on Randy Moss on the defenders, catching passes that the former Vikings and Patriots standout made famous.

The Leopards’ defense was also impressive. Coming into the game, Clay quarterback Caleb Eason had thrown 24 touchdowns to only one interception, which when put into perspective is an incredible season under center. In the second quarter, he would throw only his second interception, this one returned by Shemar Lawson 59 yards to the Clay 1. Not wanting to be outdone, the defense, following a 42-yard run by Carter to inside the Hernando 5, would see the following four plays unfold: run for no gain, run for one yard, complete pass to the 2, run stuffed at the 1.

For the Leopards, this loss moves their lifetime postseason record to 2-13, and ends a great season for the oldest school in Hernando County. Hernando can take solace in the fact that postseason football is now officially over in the county, as the Nature Coast Sharks, who were the other team in the county to qualify for the tournament, travelled to Glen St. Mary and lost 34-7 to the best team in the region, the Baker County Wildcats. For Clay, the Blue Devils will be travelling this distance again on Friday, visiting the second-best team in the region, the Zephyrhills Bulldogs. Zephyrhills advanced by narrowly beating their in-county rival, the River Ridge Royal Knights.