Four Lakewood Ranch High alums are on the 2022 Lakewood Ranch Rodeo of the Florida Gulf Coast League.
The idea started with Avery Goelz.
The former Lakewood Ranch High softball star and current University of Florida sophomore knew the Florida Gulf Coast League, a softball league dedicated to helping college softball players stay sharp through the summer, was returning to the Sarasota-Manatee counties area in 2022.
Goelz wanted to keep the momentum of her sophomore season at Florida going — she hit .268 with 19 RBIs — and failed to see a better option than the FGCL, where she could stay with her family and play for the Lakewood Ranch Rodeo, a new team added to the league this season.
Then it hit her. What if she could, in her own words, "get the band back together"?
"I thought it would be fun to play with a bunch of Lakewood Ranch (High) girls again," Goelz said. "We're all going to be getting reps somewhere anyway. We might as well do it together."
Goelz reached out to many of her former Mustangs teammates who are now playing in college. She could not convince all of them to join the Rodeo, but she did convince three of them — McKenzie Clark, a sophomore centerfielder at Clemson; Claire Davidson, a sophomore pitcher and outfielder at Duke; and Emma Anthony, a sophomore catcher at Southern Illinois.
All four former Mustangs were in the lineup for the Rodeo on the FGCL's opening day June 18. The Rodeo won 5-2 win over Impact Softball at GT Bray Park.
The league, which has regular-season games through July 15, plus an All-Star Game on July 16 and playoffs held July 17-20, has returned to the area for a third season. The 12-team league will play all its games at GT Bray, has become a go-to destination for college players looking to improve their game between seasons.
The league draws players from NCAA Division I schools from across the country, including from 2022 National Champion Oklahoma and runner-up Texas. The games are free to attend.
The four former Mustangs are the only East County players in the league, but there is another Sarasota player, former Riverview High star Holley Peluso, who now is a sophomore at Florida Atlantic. Peluso plays for the Anna Maria Aquanauts.
The chance to go up against premier talent — as well as have fun — was too good for the former Mustangs to miss.
"We all want the repetition of those live at-bats," Anthony said. "We want to get a feel for things again now that our (college) seasons are over."
It is the first time the four have played together since 2020, when the season they all hoped would end in a high school state championship ended in cancellation thanks to COVID-19. While they will never get a second chance at that championship, Davidson said the FGCL giving them a chance to play together one last time — to get closure — is better than nothing.
Clark said she initially was set to have a lighter approach to the summer season, but something happened during the opening game that made her change her tune. A few Impact players were calling out the Rodeo's pitches in the first inning, which angered the Rodeo players and turned the game's intensity up.
"I was like, 'Uh, OK, I'm ready to take this seriously now,'" Clark said.
The Rodeo would get the last laugh, winning 5-2, but the Impact got revenge on June 18, beating the Rodeo 3-2. With talent spread evenly across all teams, the games should continue to be tight all summer. That is exactly how the Lakewood Ranch alums want it.
Goelz is coming off not just a statistically strong season, but a successful team season. The Gators went 49-19 and were one of the eight teams to reach the Women's College World Series. They bowed out to UCLA 8-0 on June 5, but not before Goelz went 2-for-3 with three RBIs in the team's 7-1 win over Oregon State on June 2. It was a strong cap to her season, something Goelz hopes will continue into her junior campaign.
Clark, too, had a big 2022 season, hitting .328 with 13 doubles, two triples, 12 home runs and 34 RBIs. One of those RBIs came against Davidson, on a single down the left field line in the fourth inning of a 10-2 Clemson win on March 19. Clark got the best of that matchup, but Davidson had a strong season of her own, finishing with a 1.94 ERA over 47 innings as a pitcher and hitting .321 with 20 RBIs at the plate. Anthony, who transferred from East Carolina to Southern Illinois before the season, had 18 at-bats and hit .111 with a pair of RBIs.
"I kind of thought this would never happen," Davidson said. "I have been looking forward to this since, like, February. It's so great to be back together."
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