LAKEWOOD RANCH — May is one month that Lakewood Ranch High seniors Olivia Ortiz and Aubrey Riggins would probably rather forget.
Within weeks of one another, the two Mustangs suffered injuries that would ultimately keep them from competing this fall and winter, respectively. Ortiz broke her femur in the Class 3A State Track and Field Finals, while Riggins tore her anterior cruciate ligament while playing Philly Football for the school.
The two athletes underwent surgery and rigorous rehabilitation with the goal of returning to competition and ultimately competing at the next level.
“The thought of not playing — that never went through my mind,” Riggins says. “Soccer has been a part of my life since I was 4 years old.”
Ortiz’s and Riggins’ hard work and dedication over the past four years, particularly the past eight months, paid off Feb. 6.
In front of their families, friends and teammates, Ortiz and Riggins both signed letters of intent on National Signing Day.
Ortiz signed with the University of Alabama for cross-country and track, while Riggins signed with the University of South Florida on a soccer scholarship.
“Thankfully it didn’t stop the recruiting process,” says Ortiz, who also looked at the University of Mississippi and Auburn. “I truly felt the love at Alabama. I knew that’s where I needed to be and wanted to be.
“It shows that even at my lowest (point), they truly wanted me and believed in me,” Ortiz says. “Now it’s my job to prove them right.”
Riggins, who has been playing club soccer with the Brandon Soccer Club since she was 13 years old, used club coach Randy Belli’s assistance to help secure a spot with USF.
“It’s a home away from home,” Riggins says.
In addition to Ortiz and Riggins, runners Kristin Darrell (Southern Mississippi) and Natalie Novak (USF); soccer player Chelsea Martin (University of Tampa); and football players Luke Sears and Michael Farhat (both to University of Charleston), also made their college choices official.
Similar to Riggins, Martin, who looked at Florida Atlantic and Florida Gulf Coast University, had a connection to Tampa through her club coach, Alan Berrios, who also is an assistant coach for the Spartans.
“It’s really breathtaking,” Martin says of the experience. “It’s exciting. I can’t believe the time has come.”
Darrell knew from the moment she set foot on Southern Mississippi’s campus for her official visit that it would be her home for the next four years.
“I couldn’t find one problem,” Darrell says. “I think I can improve while I’m there and take this as far as I can.”
Novak, who also looked at DePaul University, fell in love with USF’s educational opportunities, facilities and the team, itself.
“I’m thankful for this opportunity,” Novak says. “It just shows that hard work pays off. This sport has opened so many doors, and I can’t believe this is happening.”
Farhat and Sears have grown up together and spent the past four years playing together for the Mustangs. Now the two high school teammates are preparing to tackle their next challenge — together.
Farhat’s older brother, Matt, played football for the University of Charleston. Last month, Farhat and Sears visited the West Virginia campus together.
Farhat and Sears looked at other options, but in the end the two both chose Charleston.
“It’s exciting to be able to continue our football careers,” Farhat says. “Not a lot of people have the chance to do that.”
“It’s nice to go with somebody who not only I’ve played with, but I’ve known my whole life,” Sears says. “It’s comfortable. Our families are pretty connected. It’s intertwined.”
Contact Jen Blanco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Food and fun
The Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance and its Young Leaders Alliance have something to talk about: the organizations collected 764 pounds of nonperishable food and $1,295 cash to benefit The Food Bank of Manatee/Meals on Wheels PLUS.
River Club’s Cheryl Kaufman says she’s still pinching herself.
A little “Ho! Ho! Ho!” can go a long way this holiday season.