LAKEWOOD RANCH — The moment had finally arrived — the moment Lakewood Ranch High center fielder Taylor Newton had both anxiously awaited and dreaded the entire season.
In just innings, the high school athletic career of Newton and her fellow seniors would be over, as would the final game of a storied rivalry that’s come to mean so much them.
The determining factor in a series split down the middle.
“It’s always on your mind,” Newton says. “Braden River is the school’s rivalry, and everyone expects you to beat them. The whole season, we were basically thinking ‘Braden River.’ It’s always back and forth, and this was the deciding game.”
Across the field, six Braden River High seniors looked on, eager to take the field and walk away with bragging rights one last time.
Behind the arm of senior Courtney Mirabella, Braden River got its wish, as the Lady Pirates defeated the Lady Mustangs 2-0 in its final game of the regular season April 9.
Mirabella pitched her 11th shutout of the season, allowing one hit while striking out 11.
“This is really exciting, and I think it definitely gives us confidence going into districts and regionals that we can beat anybody we play,” Mirabella says. “And, just beating Lakewood at our last shot is very exciting.”
It’s the end of an era —the culmination of what began nearly a decade ago when 13 Braden River and Lakewood Ranch High seniors united on the Miss Manatee Softball fields for the very first time.
There, they would form lifelong friendships built around a common bond.
Over the years, the girls would find new identities, intertwining as they moved about the travel ball ranks.
Then, when they reached high school, they would find themselves walking a new path.
For the past four years, 13 seniors from two different schools have put their friendships on hold for seven innings, two to four times a year.
Their respective dugouts have become hollowed ground — reserved only for those wearing their respective maroon and black or green and silver.
“The rivalry with the girls who I used to play with in travel ball — that’s what I’m going to miss,” Newton says. “We’re all friends, so I love to play them; and in college, it’s not really going to be that way.”
For the first two years of their high school careers, the seniors all found themselves in the same district — a span in which Lakewood captured back-to-back district championships.
During their freshman year, Lakewood beat Braden River to advance to the regional finals. A year later, Braden River avenged its loss in the regional semifinals en route to reaching the Final Four.
“I’m going to miss playing Lakewood, in general,” Mirabella says. “It’s always fun coming out here and getting pumped for the game and playing with your team. And, I know they get excited for it, too. No matter who wins in the end, it’s still always an exciting game for both of us.”
Since then, the two East County rivals have simply been playing for bragging rights. Braden River holds a 5-1 record over Lakewood since falling to the Lady Mustangs in the regional semifinal in 2010.
But for the players, records don’t necessarily mean anything when the two teams collide.
“I’m going to miss how exciting the games were,” Braden River senior catcher Ashley Allard says. “Both teams were always really into the game, even if we weren’t playing for a title. You could tell the games really meant something for both teams.”
Now, Braden River and Lakewood are looking toward the postseason. The two teams both are planning to use their end-of-the-season rivalry game as extra motivation heading into the district tournament.
“It’s an awesome win,” Braden River coach Erin Spivey says. “We couldn’t ask for anything more. Lakewood Ranch is our biggest game of the season besides playoffs, and we came through. The seniors wanted it and we got it.
“It gives us the momentum we need going into playoffs, and we got a good practice,” she says.
“I think any tough game helps you prepare for the postseason, and that’s what we’ve been doing all year,” Lakewood coach Tony Cummins says. “We’re where we want to be going into the postseason.”
As the No. 1 seeds in their respective districts, the Lady Pirates and Lady Mustangs both drew a first-round bye in the district tournament. Braden River opened its district tournament April 12; Lakewood opened its tournament April 13.
A win in the semifinals and Braden River and Lakewood Ranch both will have clinched a berth in the postseason and earned a spot in their respective district championship games April 18 and April 19 — a spot all 13 seniors hope to find themselves in one final time.
“I hope we win districts,” Newton says. “That’s what I’m going for, and I hope they (Braden River) do, too.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].
• Ashley Allard
• Shea Fisher
• McKaleigh Goodale
• Katie Hopkins
• Hannah Loyer
• Courtney Mirabella
• Shelby Murphy
• Taylor Newton
• Alyssa Patneaude
• Brooke Patro
• Jenn Trotter
• Amber Wimmer