The Lakewood Ranch High softball team heads for the state semifinal game.
It is always tough to watch a team lose a big game due to self-inflicted wounds.
That was the kind of day ODA pitchers had in the team’s 5-2 state semifinal loss to North Florida Christian. Three Eagles runs stemmed from preventable misfires.
Thunder senior Josh Cone had an easy first inning, but walked four straight batters to begin the second. Two more runs would score that inning, on a slow-rolling infield hit and a sacrifice fly, but it was the four walks that set the table.
In the fourth inning, Cone threw the ball away on a pickoff attempt at first base that let a runner on third base score. Cone was replaced by junior Luke Geske, who got out of that inning unscathed, but in the fifth, Geske made the same mistake, throwing a pickoff attempt away and letting a runner on third score.
Eliminate the four-straight walks and the poor pickoff attempts and it's a tight game. But ODA Head Coach Mike Matthews and his players know that's how baseball goes. Matthews gave credit to the Eagles for taking advantage of ODA’s mistakes when they had the opportunity.
“Unfortunately, we were not able to create many opportunities for ourselves," Matthews said.
"I'm proud of my guys for the way they fought," he said. "It was a great season. We just came up a little short."
It is an especially tough ending for Cone, the left-handed senior who has been steady for the Thunder throughout his career, starting (and winning) last year's state title game and carrying a 2.48 ERA this season. Asked about what happened in the second inning, Cone did not mince his words or make excuses.
"I just didn't hit my spots," Cone said. "I mean, it was too many walks. It helped them take the advantage early."
Cone will rebound. He has signed with the University of South Florida and will play for the Bulls next spring. Hey, coming within two wins of back-to-back state titles is something that a lot of high school players wish they could experience.
The question is, can ODA make it two-out-of-three state titles next season? The Thunder has a chance. Geske, a University of Miami commit who held a 1.48 ERA this year, will be a senior anchor on the pitching staff. Only two pieces of the team's state semifinal lineup will graduate. Admittedly, they are key pieces in left fielder Logan Tribble, who hit .321 with seven extra-base hits despite playing through a back injury late in the year, and shortstop Aidan Marino, the team's do-everything leadoff man who hit .427 with four home runs and 12 RBIs. Losing them will hurt, but the other seven hitters will return, including junior Jack Hobson, who led the team with six home runs and 34 RBIs, and Giovanni Giuliani, who hit .387.
Next year's team will have more experience than this year's team, and this year's team did darn well.
But ODA wasn't the only local team with a big game.
Mustangs chase softball title
Ten minutes north up Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, the Lakewood Ranch High softball team isn't ready to think about 2023. The Mustangs (28-2) have unfinished business remaining in 2022, as they will face Western High (16-8-1) in an FHSAA Class 7A state semifinal 12:30 p.m. May 27 at Legends Way Ball Fields in Clermont.
It is seemingly a favorable draw for the Mustangs as the other semifinal game sees Park Vista (22-5) face Lake Brantley (24-4) , which beat Lakewood Ranch twice during the regular season.
Lakewood Ranch advanced with a 2-0 win over visiting Newsome High (24-4) May 20. Junior Cassidy McLellan has a fifth-inning RBI single for the Mustangs and senior Taylor Shepherd added an RBI single in the sixth inning. It was sophomore pitcher Ella Dodge who stole the show, holding the Wolves scoreless by scattering five hits and walking none. It was Dodge's 23rd win of the season, a program record.
As Mustangs Coach T.J. Goelz predicted a round earlier, Lakewood Ranch did have to win a close game to advance. The Mustangs, who normally blast teams with their prolific offense, proved they can win in other ways.
"How crazy is this?" Goelz said. "We're 28-2 and headed back to states. All along we kept telling them that the details were going to come into play. The thousands of ground balls they take, the communication (in the field), all of that. We executed good defense when we needed it and Ella (Dodge) made big pitches when she needed to."
Western will likely start freshman pitcher Ali Solo against the Mustangs. Solo is 11-6 and has a 1.42 season ERA — good numbers, but not elite, especially against Western's relatively weaker schedule. The Mustangs have faced better pitchers than Solo and feasted. I will not be surprised if they do so again.
A rematch with Lake Brantley on May 28 in the state championship game would be one for the ages. It would be a poetic end to the season, as Goelz has repeatedly reminded his team that its record is actually "28-Lake Brantley."
They can have the two regular season wins, Goelz said as one win in the title game is what Lakewood Ranch wants. Unlike ODA, Lakewood Ranch will lose most of its production after this season. This is the last hurrah for the core that turned the Mustangs into state champions. So no matter the opponent, the Mustangs are determined to leave Clermont with a second state championship.
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