Four years ago, Lakewood Ranch High baseball coach Mike Mullen took a group of underclassmen pitchers and began grooming them for the future.
He put the ball in their hands with the hopes that they would eventually reach their full potential. Since then, Mullen has watched those same players reach the regional semifinals each of the past two seasons — only to see their season come to an unexpected close.
Now, four years later, those players who were once considered the future of the Lakewood’s baseball program are poised to help the Mustangs make another run toward Port St. Lucie and an elusive state title.
Lakewood hasn’t been to Port St. Lucie since 2003, when the Mustangs won the school’s only baseball title. But with nine pitchers on its roster, Mullen feels the Mustangs have the depth, experience and leadership to once again make history.
“They know what it takes to win, and they’ve felt the pain and anguish of watching other teams (move on),” Mullen said. “This is our team. I’ve been coaching them for four years, and now the starters are all seniors.
“We’re not going to dominate on the mound, but we’re going to allow the defense to do its job,” Mullen said.
Lakewood will rely on the arms of nine different pitchers this season, including seniors Seth McGarry, Brandon King, Jake Axley, Dom Leone, Kyle Benson, Bryan Vanvranken and Barrett Holtry, junior Kevin Leone and sophomore Brad Zunica.
Nine pitchers might seem like a lot to some, but the Mustangs, who open their regular season tonight at Manatee, consider it an advantage to be able to rotate guys in and out of the game.
“The more people we have, the bigger the arsenal,” said McGarry, who signed with Florida Atlantic University earlier this year. “We play lots of games, so this way we’ll be fresh for the end of the year.”
As a result, the players don’t have to throw a full six or seven innings every time they step onto the mound.
“We do things differently here at Lakewood Ranch,” Mullen said. “When they hit 70 to 80 pitches, I’m looking to the bench to see who I can replace them with. It’s a long season. April comes before you know it, but we’ve got a lot of games (in between). We want everyone to be healthy.
“We’re pretty deep,” Mullen said. “At any given time, I feel comfortable that any one of these guys will be able to (defend) the game and handle the ball.”
Leading the charge for the Mustangs this season will be McGarry, who finished with nine wins and a .61 ERA on the mound last season.
In addition, the pitchers will look to collectively replace 14 of the Mustangs 24 wins from last season.
“We’re pretty much all seniors,” Benson said. “We’re experienced. We know each other and we’ve grown up playing with each other.”
Joining the Mustangs rotation for the first time is Axley, who transferred over from Cardinal Mooney and already has helped fill some holes.
Now with the season finally upon them, Lakewood’s pitching staff is hoping the time and effort it put in over the offseason in the weight room will pay off with a state championship.
“I just want us to put out a solid season,” Axley said.
But at the same time, the pitchers realize they can’t expect to do it all on their own.
“We can’t do too much,” King said. “We just need to do our job.”
“We just need to throw strikes and let the defense help us out,” McGarry said. “It’s all about executing.”
Contact Jen Blanco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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- Lakewood opened the season with a win last night against a very talented Manatee Hurricane team. Jake Axley (4 innings) and Brad Zunica (3 innings) combined for the win on the mound. Good play in the field by defense assured the win. Next game tonight at Lakewood Ranch High school against Southeast High school, 7pm start time.
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