BRADEN RIVER — The Braden River baseball team has become accustomed to playing for the district title.
Having won back-to-back district championships, the Pirates are looking to once again put themselves in a position to bring another title back to Braden River.
“We work as a team and play as a team,” third baseman Stephen Fischer said. “We’re just going to take it slow and focus on winning our first game of the season. Then, we’ll go from there.”
Last season, the Pirates finished 23-3 and won the Class 4A-District 10, advancing to the regional quarterfinals. But for the second consecutive season, Braden River ran into a roadblock, ending their year prematurely.
The Pirates return more than half of their starting lineup this season, including Fischer, Mick Olitsky, Marc Monroe and Garrett Russini, and coach Ryan Hilton is pleased with what he has seen thus far in practice.
“I like the makeup of this team,” Hilton said. “The guys in our offensive lineup are (strong), and we’re going to have a lot of battles for position and playing time. Our goals are the same as they have been: to win all of our district games and put ourselves in a position to be in that final district game.”
Braden River will face an new district this season with rival Lakewood Ranch, Bayshore, St. Petersburg Lakewood, Dixie Hollins and Seminole Osceola joining the Pirates and Palmetto in District 10.
This season, the Pirates will only play six district games, making the road to the district championship much more difficult.
“It’ll be exciting to see other teams and to see how we measure up,” Hilton said. “We only have six district games, so you pretty much have to win them all or close to it.”
Braden River will open its regular season Feb. 23 versus Charlotte.
Having lost 11 seniors from last season’s squad, including catcher Mike Ohlman, the Lakewood Ranch baseball team looks nothing like it did a year ago.
But that doesn’t mean this team isn’t ready to play.
“The guys I have out here are strong, great group of players,” coach Mike Mullen said. “`They love to play the game of baseball. We’re young, but we’re ready to go.”
The Mustangs return a pair of starters from last season’s squad in Shane Davidson and Nick Castner, and Mullen also is looking for Reggie Lindsey and Zach Larson to help carry the load.
Last season, Lakewood started off strong, finishing second in the Hitting Academy Invitational, before a disappointing stretch where the Mustangs lost five straight. Lakewood rebounded toward the end of the season, knocking off previously undefeated Pendleton before falling to Charlotte in the district quarterfinals.
“We under-produced … most definitely,” Castner said. “We had more promise, but we faded toward the end.”
Similar to Braden River, the Mustangs are playing in a new district.
“I’m looking forward to the different competition and playing guys that we’re used to playing,” Davidson said.
Lakewood will open its regular season Feb. 23 at Venice.
Tucked back behind The Out-of-Door Academy, the sounds of smacking gloves and cracking aluminum echo through the air.
But this year, the sounds are that much sweeter for the ODA baseball team — the team’s practice and game fields are now finally complete.
“It’s nice and quiet out here,” coach Mike Verrill said. “We’ve got a good practice unit and we’re excited about the new field.”
Last season, the Thunder finished their best season in history, advancing to the regional finals for the first time.
“We had the potential to win the whole thing, and even though we didn’t, I still think we had a really good season,” pitcher Brody Wiseman said.
This season, ODA returns the majority of its starting lineup, including AJ Strong, Wiseman and Scooter Friss. The Thunder lost two key players in starting pitchers Taylor Emmons and Tony Gurry, but ODA picked up three players this season, including Jake Foss, JR Crosby and TD Dietrich, whom Verrill hopes will fill some of the void.
The Thunder also moved up to Class 2A this season and will face an new district, featuring St. Stephen’s, Admiral Farragut, Northside Christian and Shorecrest.
“We’ve also moved up to 2A, which is another challenge, but I think we’ll be able to compete with all of the teams in the district,” Verrill said.
ODA opens its regular season Feb. 18 at Admiral Farragut.
Contact Jen Blanco at email@example.com.