LAKEWOOD RANCH — At this time last season, the Lakewood Ranch baseball team was nearly unstoppable.
The team boasted a 22-2 record and was dominate in practically every facet of the game —except they were playing at the junior varsity level.
After losing 11 seniors to graduation, the Mustangs brought up eight players from last year’s JV squad to help fill out the roster. Lakewood had high expectations at the beginning of the season, but the team learned quickly the game is entirely different at the varsity level.
The Mustangs started off the season a disappointing 1-8 — their lone win a 9-3 decision over Venice Feb. 23 — as the players struggled defensively and at the plate.
“We weren’t fielding ground balls and our pitchers were throwing strikes at the wrong times and not throwing strikes when we (needed) them,” coach Mike Mullen said. “It was bad. We were still scoring runs, but it was just a bad situation.”
It wasn’t until a disappointing 5-3 loss to Braden River March 13 — in which the Mustangs gave up three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning — that the team’s attitude began to change.
“The competition is very different, and everyone probably just thought it was going to be easier than it was,” junior Shane Davidson said. “Everyone was just trying to do too much, and we lost a lot of games in the last inning. But we started getting more hits and playing more small ball.”
Lakewood’s turnaround began with a victory over Bayshore March 16, in which the Mustangs posted 21 runs against Bruins ace Kyle Barley. Since then, the Mustangs have won 12 of their last 18 games, including district wins over Braden River, St. Pete Lakewood and Dixie Hollins.
As a result, Lakewood earned the No. 2 seed in the Class 4A-District 10 tournament.
“They got used to the competition,” Mullen said. “We’ve got seven sophomores in the starting lineup and in spite of the (losses) they maintained their focus. It’s been really fun. Even when we were 1-8 they never got down. Instead, they used it as a learning experience.”
One of the keys to Lakewood’s drastic turnaround has been the development of pitchers Zach Hoppe, Seth McGarry, Zack Larson and Brett Hanewich. At the beginning of the season, the Mustangs were averaging seven to eight walks per game. Now, the pitching staff is allowing only one or two.
“Those guys have really kept us in ballgames,” Mullen said. “They’ve given up substantially less runs and they’ve eliminated the walks.”
In addition to Lakewood’s development on the mound, the Mustangs have also come alive at the plate. Sophomore Phil DiLandro is batting .396, and junior Andrew McNett .389. Davidson leads the team in hits with 26, and Larson leads the team in RBIs (26), runs (21), stolen bases (12) and walks (13).
“They’re really handling the bat well,” Mullen said. “They’re learning to hit the ball the other way and doing it with authority. Everything is going well and it’ll continue to go well if we maintain our consistency at practice, stick with what works and go after it.”
The Mustangs hosted Bayshore in the opening round April 27, but results were unavailable as of press time. The winner of the Lakewood/Bayshore game was scheduled to play the winner of the Braden River/Dixie Hollins game April 28.
“We just want to go out and win every game that we can and play every game like it’s our last,” Davidson said.
Contact Jen Blanco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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