Lakewood Ranch area players are key to Tampa Mustangs-TJ travel team success.
T.J. Goelz continues to showcase Lakewood Ranch's softball talent.
After Goelz led the Lakewood Ranch High team to a state championship in May — an accomplishment for which he was named the 2021 Extra Innings Softball High School Coach of the Year — he turned his attention to the travel ball season.
Even then, he kept his focus on Lakewood Ranch-area players.
The U18 Tampa Mustangs-TJ club softball team, based in Lakewood Ranch, finished third overall at the Premier Girls Fastpitch National Championships, held July 27-30 in Huntington Beach, California. The club won its section of the tournament bracket, going 5-0, before losing 3-0 to Nebraska Gold July 30.
The Mustangs are unique in the elite tier of travel softball teams as they feature six players from one school, Lakewood Ranch High, while others will select their players from all over the country.
"That has always been one of the differences for us," Goelz said. "You look at the teams that are out here, especially in the finals, and they often have 16 to 18 kids from 16 to 18 different high schools. We have to branch off sometimes, but for the most part it is a local group. We bring them together and show them how to play national championship-level ball."
As a result, the players on Goelz's teams are often less heralded than their opponents. Nine of the 18 players on the Mustangs' roster, including pitchers Kylah Berry and Brianna Godfrey, are uncommitted to colleges. Two of the nine commitments are to non-NCAA Division I schools. In comparison to other travel teams at the national championship level, that is a disadvantage, but Goelz makes it a point of pride for his teams to outperform expectations.
"Our motto has always been that we respect all our opponents, but we fear none," Goelz said. "We respect their talent. We respect that they have committed themselves to this game. But we're not scared of them.
"We never stop coaching throughout the summer, throughout these tournaments. We want our players to know how to play the game and do it the right way, with class and dignity. I think we get rewarded for that. It brings out the best in our players."
Jillian Herbst, who graduated from Lakewood Ranch in May and will play for Colgate University next season, said her final tournament with the team was a special one, in part because of the team's local ties.
"It was nice to play with a lot of my (Lakewood Ranch) teammates year-round," Herbst said. "We know each other. We know how we play. Even in something like turning a double play, we know whether to expect a flip or a throw, and those things make a difference. This team had great chemistry. This was our first summer (of travel ball) together and it came together quickly."
Herbst was instrumental in getting the Mustangs to the tournament's semifinals. The team trailed 5-0 against the Birmingham Thunderbolts, Herbst's former team, heading into the sixth inning. Herbst pinch hit and slashed a single up the middle to begin a rally. The Mustangs would tie the game at 5-5 and eventually win it 6-5 in eight innings.
The Mustangs-TJ club will lose five players to graduation. Goelz said he encourages players from the Lakewood Ranch area to reach out if they are interested in vying for a spot on the team.
"There are openings for players who want to play at the national level," Goelz said. "There are no guarantees, but it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done. If you're performing, you'll get opportunities."
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.