There were plenty of great ones, but only 10 can can claim a spot at the top.
It was a school year of agonizingly close finishes for many of East County's top high school sports programs.
There were no state golds.
However, the local programs generated plenty of highlight-reel moments from the 2018-19 school year. Here are East County Observer's top-10 accomplishments.
10 — Braden River High beach volleyball finishes third at the state tournament
How would the Braden River High beach volleyball team follow up winning a regional tournament in its inaugural season?
By doing it again in its second year.
At the Sunshine State Athletic Conference-sanctioned tournament, held April 16 in Sarasota, the Pirates defeated Riverview High’s ‘B’ team 5-0 before taking down Tarpon Springs High 3-2. In the finals, the Pirates beat Charlotte High 4-1.
“It was an expectation to get back to states,” Pirates coach Matthew McElhiney said. “But they (the SSAC) added several programs this year. The talent level increased across the board in terms of depth. It was more of a challenge to get back than last year. We played some good competition this year and were pretty consistent. All our losses were competitive. Winning against Charlotte was good for us. Tarpon Springs, Charlotte and us are all evenly matched. We beat both during the regular season, but they were close matches.”
The Pirates went deep into the state tournament April 27 in Taveras, finishing third for the second-consecutive year.
9 — ODA opens Fox Field House
The opening of a facility might not capture the exhilaration of on-field accomplishments, but it could lead to more of them for the Thunder.
Construction of the field house, which opened Jan. 8, began on June 23, 2018, and was completed Dec. 23. The building is 12,300 square feet and is being used for multiple sports, including basketball, volleyball and indoor tennis. Its main purpose, according to Head of School David Mahler, is to get allow all the students to finish their practices earlier so they can get home to do their homework. Previously, ODA was having later start times to the stacked practices or was sending its athletes to other public facilities in Lakewood Ranch to practice indoors. Now, everything can be done on campus, Mahler said.
The building cost $2.5 million, and $1 million of that came from the Fox family: father Larry, mother Jennifer, eighth-grader Zach and fifth-grader Sami. Larry Fox, who is the chairman of the school’s board of trustees, said the donation was the perfect way for the family to give back to the school, since it was a need and it also helped that Zach Fox is a basketball fan.
With the new digs, ODA becomes an attractive destination for any young athletes looking for a home for their skills.
8 — Tristan McWilliam breaks ODA track record
It is not often a freshman makes an impact on a program like The Out-of-Door Academy’s Tristan McWilliam did.
The boys track and field runner, a ninth-grader, had limited running experience. He had run cross country for two years at Nolan Middle, he said, but that program did not train or hold practices, and just competed at meets.
He made the practice count. McWilliam broke the school record in the 3,200-meter race (9:56.54) March 29 at the Indian Rocks Cavonis Invite at Indian Rocks High. The previous record was set in 2005 by Connor Revord (10:15.43). McWilliam then broke his own record at the state meet on May 4 at North Florida in Jacksonville, running a 9:46.95.
McWilliam’s biggest challenge, he said, is making sure he stays mentally focused on track.
“During races, it can be boring,” McWilliam said. “It is the same thing over and over again. Your mind can drift off and you think about other things or lose focus. You usually wake up when the crowds cheer. Then there is a sense of getting closer and closer to the end.”
Even so, McWilliam said he plans to focus on training this summer, so a big sophomore season could in his future.
7 — Knowledge McDaniel returns from suspension
The loudest crowd of the year was not at a state championship game, but a regular season football game, when Braden River High hosted Manatee High.
The Pirates' faithful thundered when senior wide receiver Knowledge McDaniel — previously ruled ineligible by the Florida High School Athletic Association after an investigation into Braden River athletics found McDaniel received “impermissible benefits” — took the field for warm-ups. They did so again when he was announced as a team captain. When he caught his first pass, a 31-yard touchdown from senior quarterback Bryan Gagg, the intensity increased.
McDaniel finished with 133 total yards (87 receiving and 46 rushing) and two touchdown catches.
"It felt good, man," McDaniel said of getting to play. "I was happy to be back with my team. I felt good about the game. I was more excited than (all of) Manatee."
Appeals allowed McDaniel to eventually play in seven games, finishing with 436 receiving yards, 163 rushing yards and 14 combined touchdowns.
He wasn't eligible for the players, though. The Pirates missed his presence in the playoffs, when their season again ended against Venice High, this time losing 28-21. But McDaniel made the most of his tumultuous senior season, a fitting cap on a tremendous career. He will continue his football career at Marshall University.
6 — Lakewood Ranch boys soccer wins seventh-consecutive district title
A rebuilt Lakewood Ranch High boys soccer team (17-1-2) won its seventh-straight district title on Jan. 31, a 5-0 home win against Riverview High, Senior forward Wilmer Yanez recorded a hat trick to lead the way.
It was a fun moment for players whose chemistry suggests they played together for years.
But they had not.
The team’s chemistry has been solid despite the blending of players from different cultural backgrounds. Yanez’s family hails from Honduras. Seniors Josh Hays and Alex Thompson are from England. Junior forward Najii Greene-Villegas was born in Japan. Senior defenseman Andrew Schagen and sophomore defender Daniel Schagen have roots in Argentina. Freshman midfielder Sam Leavy speaks in an Irish brogue. Sophomore defender Reed Rampinelli’s family is from Italy.
Including the U.S., seven countries were represented in the Mustangs’ ranks. Everyone respects where the others are from, Thompson said, and stories about their cultures are shared.
“They are constantly on each other,” Mustangs coach Vito Bavaro said. “But it is playful. They sincerely care for each other. Usually we have four or five cliques of guys, but there’s none of that here.”
The Mustangs would advance to the final four before losing 2-0 to Lake Mary High on Feb. 16. The team’s chemistry was a large reason for its success.
5 — Lakewood Ranch boys swimmer wins state silver medal
Lakewood Ranch senior boys swimmer Sebastian Aguirre was rewarded with a silver medal at the state tournament for his hard work.
After finishing fifth in the 100-yard butterfly as a junior (50.73), Aguirre spent the offseason practicing, determined to reach the medal stand. Early returns were promising. On Sept. 15, Aguirre set the 100 butterfly record (50.82) at the Tarpon Invite in Punta Gorda, crushing the previous meet record of 52.44 set by Venice High’s Mark Cox in 2008.
That season, Cox finished second at the state meet in the event.
Aguirre would do the same on Nov. 10 at Stuart’s Sailfish Splashpark Aquatic Athletics Center. He swam a 50.27, second only to St. Thomas Aquinas senior Juan Zapata (50.06).
It wasn’t gold, but it was proof that hard work leads to success.
4 — Gordon leads Braden River girls basketball to state quarterfinals
In 2018, Braden River guard O’Mariah Gordon, then a freshman, first made waves on the high school scene.
In 2019, as a sophomore, Gordon obliterated the scene.
A 20-1 Pirates regular season, the best mark in program history, saw Gordon average 29.7 points, 6.8 assists, 6.6 rebounds and 5.3 steals per game on her way to being named Florida’s Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year. Gordon and teammates Julia Rodriguez, a junior, and Mela Sharma, a senior, became a fearsome trio. The Pirates won four games and defeated Sarasota High 60-34 on Feb. 19 in the regional semifinals to advance to the regional finals (elite eight) for the first time.
They would lose in that round to eventual state champion Tampa Bay Tech High 77-66 despite Gordon’s best game of the season — 42 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block.
“I literally packed up and drove down here 18 hours (from Illinois) for O’Mariah Gordon,” said first-year Pirates head coach Stephanie Smith said. “They needed someone who would understand her talent. It has been a blessing, because it turns out they had nine other amazing players, too. I am proud of our seniors. I am going to miss them. I would not trade this team for any team in the world, even though we lost. I don’t care.”
As Gordon continues to grow and the team gels with Smith’s aggressive style of play, the Pirates' trajectory should continue to rise.
3 — Lakewood Ranch senior takes silver hurdles medal
Lakewood Ranch senior boys track and field runner James Rivera could not quite defend his gold medal in the 300-meter hurdles at the track and field championships on May 4 at North Florida’s Hodges Stadium in Jacksonville.
But he came close.
Rivera (37.75) finished second to St. Thomas Aquinas senior Jamal Cooney (37.56). Rivera said the second-place finish was because of a bad start.
"I was a little rocky getting off the blocks and from the first hurdle, I just was not smooth over it," Rivera said. "But at the end of the day, I have had an awesome season. I have the best coach around (Lakewood Ranch hurdles coach Larry Ryans) and I am happy to come out and get second.
"A million times, I have to go through my head and think, 'I have to get out pushing that back block.' I felt it when I got out. It was not it needed to be. I came out side-to-side instead of straight-on. It really affected me."
Earlier in the season, Rivera said he cared more about improving himself as an athlete more than any medal or trophy. Regardless of his states finish, he will continue to improve wherever he goes next.
2 — Lakewood Ranch softball reaches state championship game
It did not end in a championship, but the Lakewood Ranch High softball team, ranked first in the country by MaxPreps for much of the season, moved one step closer to its goal this season after reaching the state title game.
The Mustangs went undefeated (30-0) until the title game, and they got there by defeating some of the top teams in the U.S. handily, including Sickles High in the regional finals (11-0) and Cooper City High in the state semis (12-2).
The Avery Goelz-Claire Davidson combination played a major part in that, including back-to-back home runs against Sickles. Both juniors are in FloSoftball’s top-50 players in their class. Goelz is fourth, Davidson is 27th.
“We work well together,” said Goelz, a Florida commit. “I will go up to bat and then tell her what happened, what I saw. Then she will go up and talk about her at-bat with me. It gives us an idea of what is going to happen."
Unfortunately, the Mustangs mustered one hit in the title game against Winter Springs on May 24 at Vero Beach’s Jackie Robinson Training Complex and lost 3-0. Lakewood Ranch returns much of its fearsome lineup and pitching staff, so another trip to Vero Beach may simply be a matter of time.
1 — Lakewood Ranch boys basketball reaches title game
The Lakewood Ranch High basketball team (23-6) was playing in the 8A semifinals March 8 with a heavy heart, with the health of former Mustang Jack Kelley, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a Feb. 28 car accident, in its thoughts. That hardly slowed the Mustangs down against Fleming Island High (21-3).
By the end of the first quarter at the R.P. Funding Center in Lakeland, the Mustangs held an 18-7 advantage, and it became apparent that the Golden Eagles' trap defense had no answer for Lakewood Ranch's quick passing attack. That held true until the final buzzer. Lakewood Ranch beat Fleming Island 60-38, advancing to the first state title game in program history.
"This journey has been phenomenal," Schiller said. "This is an awesome group of kids."
Junior guard Christian Shaneyfelt led the Mustangs with 21 points. Senior forward Josh Young was the only other Mustang in double-digits, with 10. Young also added a game-high eight rebounds.
Kelley would make progress in his recovery, and though the Mustangs would lose 57-52 to Blanche Ely High in the state title game, their season was a historic one. With Shaneyfelt and fellow starters Keon Buckley and Christian Perez returning — all will be seniors — the program has a shot to return to Lakeland next season.