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Sarasota Thursday, May 30, 2019 2 months ago

Our columnist's favorite moments of the high school sports season

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Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn.
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Reporter

Last week I rewatched one of my favorite movies of 2017, David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story.”

In it (no spoilers), Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara’s characters are moving out of their worn-down house and into a newer one. While packing, Mara notes that the piano they share is out of tune. Affleck replies that he “just had it tuned.”

“That was a year ago,” Mara says.

In a movie about time and how it shapes our perceptions of the lives we live, how it expands and contrasts and slithers and jumps and stands still, this innocuous line hits me the hardest.

What does this have to do with sports?

The 2018–2019 high school season is complete — for area schools, anyway — though it seems like it just started.

Next week, we will bring you our top-10 Sarasota sports moments of the season, the ones flush with triumph. But I like to take time and remember the smaller moments too, the ones where winning a championship is less the story than the lessons learned or one singular moment of joy on a random Tuesday. So I’m going to talk about a few of those, starting with the story of a lucky bat.

On March 11, the Sarasota High baseball team was playing Venice High at home. Both teams reached the state final four in 2018. Venice pitcher Danny Rodriguez, a Florida Gulf Coast commit, had the Sailors fooled through five innings and the Indians led 1–0. Then Rodriguez was pulled and the Sailors went to work on the Venice bullpen. With a tie game and a runner on first, senior catcher Owen Ayers stepped to the plate. Before the inning, Ayers told his coaches that he was going to switch bats. He pulled out a silver beat-up, hefty bat from under a pile of bags, which he used in lieu of his previous bat choice.

Sarasota catcher Owen Ayers stands at the plate — before he grabbed his lucky bat.

“This game, I was using a smaller bat to adapt to their pitching,” Ayers said. “For the last one, I had to go with the bat I was more comfortable with. I’m going to stick with it. That is the bat I was looking to use this year, and it has been working.”

It worked again. Ayers smashed a line drive over the center fielder’s head and into the left center gap. Uriel Hernandez scored from first base after a play at the plate, and Ayers took third, sending the crowd berserk. The Sailors went on to win 3–1.

On the softball diamond, there was nothing better than watching Cardinal Mooney High play, simply because they could. The Cougars fielded a team for the first time since 2013. Coach Shawn Donelson stressed he was more concerned with getting better than winning this year. Junior Gianna Newsome agreed.

“We were pumped up for this,” Newsome said. “And I think we have already grown as a team. I think we have exceeded some expectations.”

Next year, the attention can turn to making the postseason. I can’t wait to see how the program blossoms.

Speaking of new teams being formed, Booker Middle put together a girls golf program for the first time ever. (I know, this isn’t high school sports. I don’t care.) The club’s four initial participants were seventh graders Randilyn Wilson, Antonia Watson and Jocelyn Parker, plus eighth grader Tahana Parker, Jocelyn’s sister. Unlike the Mooney softball team, none of the four Tornadoes had played golf previously.

They did not know what a bunker was, or how to properly tee up a ball, or how to fill out a scorecard. The week before I visited their April 2 practice, they learned a proper grip. Sometimes, on the driving range, they cracked a great shot. Often, they did not. But with every swing, the smiles increased.

“They are doing it,” coach John Sprague said. “They are better than they were the first day. Better than they were the second day. The more you hit, the better off you are. And here’s what I appreciate: their attitude. They are great kids. If they get comfortable on the golf course, they can do this forever. I’m 70 and still play golf.”

Booker QB Cleve Benson rolls to his right against Cardinal Mooney. He made his first start against DeSoto County High.

Then there was the case of Booker football freshman Cleve Benson, who was thrust into the starting quarterback spot after the Tornadoes’ top-two quarterbacks were unavailable. The 5-foot-4 Benson, possessing stainless steel nerves, was valiant in his start against DeSoto County High, throwing for 196 yards and two touchdowns in a 19-6 win.

“My mom (Tonisha Benson) tells me I’ve been blessed with leadership,” Benson said. “It’s all a blessing.”

Benson kept the position as the year continued. In the fall, with the invaluable experience he now possesses, Benson should be even better.

Of course, I also loved the games. Watching Booker and Riverview play in boys basketball, with the kinds of athletes those programs produce, is a treat. They are back-and-forth, nonstop action sequences. From a fan’s perspective, they are what every high school contest should be: Competitive, fast — maybe a little sloppy — and fun. The dunks alone are worth the ticket price. The passion between the two rivals is extra.

There’s more I wish I could write. I loved following the Cardinal Mooney volleyball team — which came achingly close to its first state championship win — and lacrosse team, which again set the benchmark for how good Sarasota County lacrosse can be. I loved watching the Riverview football team squeak into the playoffs at 7–3 and rumble to its first state semifinal since 2004.

Thank you for reading through all of it. This summer promises to be hot and sticky and generally “blah,” but August will be here soon enough, and that means we get to do this all over again.

I’m the sports reporter for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, MD. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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