Mustangs cap golden memories on the diamond
After 10 years together, the current Tampa Mustangs 18U travel softball players, who called the Miss Manatee Softball Complex home as they advanced through the age groups, played their final tournament together during the 18U Premier Girls Fastpitch National Championship July 23-29, in Huntington Beach, Calif.
The Mustangs lost their first game and then won the next two games before being eliminated in the third game of the loser's bracket. While the outcome wasn't what they wanted, the experience was fulfilling.
The girls enjoyed traveling together one last time with trips to the movies, the beach, dinner and Disneyland all on the itinerary.
“Playing together with a team for 10 years affects more than just the game,” Lakewood Ranch outfielder Denali Schappacher said. “I can honestly say it shaped my personality as I grew up.”
For the past decade, I’ve watched these girls, the majority who attended high school at either Braden River or Lakewood Ranch, grow from 8-year-old elementary school students to those accepting scholarship offers.
When I first met the Mustangs, formerly the Suncoast Storm, their conversations centered around the latest episodes of 'Spongebob Squarepants" and "Jimmy Neutron." In the years since, I've watched each of the girls come into their own, as conversations now center around Netflix, college and their plans for the future.
This team was one for the ages. A group of local girls going up against perennial teams from across the nation and not only being competitive, but winning the vast majority of the tournaments they entered.
"It was pretty amazing to represent Lakewood Ranch and the state of Florida for the past 10 years," Lakewood Ranch senior shortstop Kinsey Goelz said. "We started off just like any team just trying to beat good local talent. ... It was never easy, but staying together was a huge advantage for us on the field. We knew each other's range and we communicated non-stop with one another.
"For the girls who are now going off to college, I hope they continue to keep that desire to win and keep working hard because I know they will do great things," Goelz said.
On those rare occasions when they found themselves down, the girls always found a way to bounce back. Whether it was stringing together a series of runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, hitting a walk-off in extra innings, or perhaps my favorite, losing the first game of last year’s 16U PGF National Championship and then reeling off 12 straight games to win their first national title after having finished as the runner-up each of the two years prior.
Those bad starts to tournaments often yielded the fondest memories because that’s when they were forced to come together, talk about it and just enjoy being together.
“One of our most important ways to fix a bad game, was to get back together and learn to play as a team again,” Schappacher said. “To me, that is what separates us from other teams and gives us the strength and determination.”
They will remember the hiking, rafting, cross-country flights, swimming, sleepovers and various escapades that have left a mark on their lives.
"Traveling together for a tournament and having a big group around always meant that we were going to have lots of laughs and fun," Goelz said.
On July 20, the Mustangs held their last practice together as a team with their 14U counterparts looking on. As the sun began to set on the field, the champions shared memories and advice before passing the torch to the younger versions of themselves on the same field where it all began 10 years ago.
“In 2009, my team goal was for us to hit all our cutoffs,” said catcher Maddie Biggs, a 2016 graduate of Lakewood Ranch. “In 2015, my team goal was to win a National Championship.”
Jon Bullas, the Lakewood Ranch resident who is the Director of Instruction for The Golf Academy at Lakewood Ranch, was named the Tour Director for the U.S. Kids Golf Tour events in Sarasota.
After becoming a U.S. Kids Certified Instructor, Bullas began discussing the possibility of creating local U.S. Kids Golf Tour events.
Through the tour, junior golfers have the opportunity to play and compete on some of the area’s best courses. They also have the chance to qualify for regional, state, national and international championships.
Bullas plans to have fall, spring and summer seasons with six to eight events scheduled for each season. The tour also will give local players a chance to play in top notch events in their own backyard rather than traveling across the state to play.
“There are so many children locally who play golf and don’t have the opportunity to play in quality golf tournaments,” Bullas said. “Now people will come from other places to play in our events.”
Bullas hopes to have between 80 and 100 players participating. The first tournament of the Sarasota Local Tour will tee off Sept. 3 at Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club. Registration for the tournament is underway and will run through Aug. 31. It fall season runs through Dec. 11.
For more information and a complete schedule of area tournaments visit uskidsgolf.com/tournaments/local and search for the Sarasota Local Tour.