There was a lot of success to celebrate this year
2018 was a highly successful year for local sports.
It saw athletes get national recognition, prove the future is bright and even find state championship glory. There were streaks started and accomplishments achieved for the first time ever. The year was so stacked, making county history only got one team to ninth place on the list.
While whittling these moments down means inevitably leaving deserving ones out, the 10 moments below captured the heart of the Sarasota community.
10 - Jake Ilardi reaches top-15 global rankings
For skateboarder Jake Ilardi, the most surreal moment of the Red Bull Roller Coaster event in Munich on June 23 wasn’t the event itself.
It was later, when the Sarasota native joined fellow skateboarder Pedro Barros, of Brazil, for a beer. Ilardi, 21, had watched Barros, 23, and his videos for years, he said. Now Ilardi was competing and “chilling” alongside him, and Ilardi felt at home in that world.
Perhaps it was Barros who should have been star-struck. After all, Ilardi scored a 95 and won the Roller Coaster event, which features a 300-meter slopestyle ramp with street, bowl and megaramp elements.
Ilardi is ranked 14th-best in the world by The Boardr, a top skateboard organization which puts on events like the Vans Park Series and holds a seat on the board of World Skate (the sport’s governing body). He wasn’t on the global radar 18 months ago. Back then, he worked at Publix as a source of income while taking part in local competitions and occasionally traveling out of state to skate.
Then he got a chance to skate in Montreal’s “Am Getting Paid” event in September 2017, and everything changed. He won, hitting a "540" and a "big flight front board" in the same run. He took home $10,000 from that event, and for the first time his dream of making a living off skateboarding seemed within reach.
He’s in the “transitional” stage now, he said, but he’s made enough off skateboarding (The Boardr has his 2018 earnings at $66,750) to move to Los Angeles, which he did in March. That’s skating Mecca, he said, and as much as he thanks Sarasota for all it's done for him, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to head west.
As the calendar turn to 2019, it seem as though only bigger and better things are in store for Ilardi.
9 — Cardinal Mooney boys lacrosse makes county history
The Cardinal Mooney boys lacrosse team defeated Gulf Coast High 17-4 on May 1 to reach the regional finals, and made history in the process.
They became not just the first Cougars players to do so, but also the first Sarasota County program to do so. It’s a large achievement for a region that picked up the sport later than almost everyone else in not just the state, but the country.
“It’s really special,” freshman Christian Laureano said of the achievement. Laureano scored seven goals in the win against Gulf Coast.
The Cougars have been on a cusp of a breakthrough for years, but could never quite get past bigger schools in their way.
Before this season, Cougars coach Derek Wagner made T-shirts with a picture of the scoreboard from last season’s district title game loss to Riverview High, 9-8 in overtime. It’s the game that has driven the team all year, and likely would have no matter what, but Wagner made sure his team wouldn’t forget it. He wore the T-shirts during every single practice Cardinal Mooney had until the Cougars avenged last season’s loss by beating the Rams in the title game this year.
The game now in the past, Wagner has allowed himself to stop wearing the shirts, and he and the team got rid of them in … a special way.
“Let’s say they’re going to go up in ashes,” Wagner said, laughing.
Cardinal Mooney lost to Jupiter High in the next round, but the private school proved it can hang with anyone in the state this season.
8 — Booker boys basketball reaches state semifinals
The basketball jounced off the rim as the Booker High crowd suppressed its screams on March 2.
Boom, boom, boom, boom, swish.
Volcanic cheers rattled the gym. Tornadoes senior guard Jaylen Jones had given the team a 44-42 lead over visiting Mariner High on a drive down the middle of the paint. He fell to the floor as the ball fell through the hoop, then stood and was picked up in elation by junior Johnnie Williams IV. The rest of the team joined the joyous party.
Mariner would call timeout and commit a turnover on the ensuing possession. The two-point lead would stand. For the first time since the program's state title-winning 2006 season, Booker boys basketball was headed to the final four.
The man who hit the game winner found himself at a loss.
"So much," Jones said about what was going through his mind as he held the ball in his hands, the seconds falling off the clock. "It was a tie game. I didn't know what to do. I tried to stay within the game and put my team on top.
"I'm just happy my team is going to states. It's a blessing, that's all I can say."
Booker would fall to defending 6A champion Leesburg High 62-61 in the state semifinal, but the Tornadoes know their 2017-2018 was the start of a potentially dominant run in the future.
7 - Riverview football reaches final four
On Nov. 24, 2017, the Riverview High football team lost 28-19 in the regional finals to Dr. Phillips High at the Ram Bowl.
It was the second season in a row the Rams lost to the Panthers to end the season, and it was filled with missed opportunities on offense. The Panthers jumped on the Rams early and it was too much for Riverview to overcome. The Panthers went on to win the Class 8A state title.
On Nov. 24, 2018, the Rams (10-3) finally got revenge, hammering the Panthers (7-6) 33-7 and advancing to the state semifinals for the first time since 2004.
“It feels awesome,” Rams coach Josh Smithers said before pausing. “It feels awesome, man. To get knocked out two years in a row and then be able to get another shot at them, and beat them … This is our seniors' last game at the Ram Bowl. They are going out on top. It’s just a great night all around.”
At first, the game seemed like it might be a repeat of last season. Dr. Phillips scored on its first possession, draining almost half of the first quarter while doing so, and Riverview punted on its first chance. But things quickly changed when Riverview defensive back Amari Pitts intercepted a Panthers pass and scampered to the end zone to tie the game. The Rams would add three more turnovers later in the game.
Smithers said he was proud of the way his defense executed, and that building the lead off Hall's field goals forced Dr. Phillips to play an offensive style the Panthers were not comfortable running, giving the Rams the advantage.
Riverview would lose to Mandarin High 45-31 in the semifinals, but what the Rams accomplished will not soon be forgotten.
6 — Sarasota baseball reaches back-to-back final fours
The Sarasota High baseball team did the unbelievable for the second year in a row.
The Sailors reached the final four, again, after struggling at times during a regular season that saw the team finish 13-11. It was the Sailors' 12th appearance in the final four since Clyde Metcalf was hired as coach in 1982.
Last year, the Sailors lost in the state semifinals. This year, they won, riding freshman pitching sensation Conner Whittaker to a 5-2 win against Strawberry Crest High on June 1.
“Conner did a great job,” Metcalf said. “He struggled a bit in the fourth and fifth innings, looked like he was getting a bit tired, but then he hit another gear in the sixth and seventh and gave us the opportunity (to win).
Defense played well, too. We made the plays, pitched well and threw strikes. That’s been our formula.”
Whittaker was called up from junior varsity, where he began the year despite being chosen to pitch in the varsity spring scrimmage, after spring break. Whittaker made four starts on JV, playing shortstop the rest of the time, but Metcalf knew he had something special in his young right-hander and saved him for when the time was right.
The move worked. In his five postseason starts, Whittaker threw 32 innings and allowed just three earned runs, an ERA of 0.84.
The Sailors would lose to St. Thomas Aquinas High 8-4 in the state title game, but should have a chance to get back to Fort Myers next season behind their dynamic young right-hander.
5 - Mooney volleyball reaches title game
A special group.
That is how coach Chad Sutton described the Cardinal Mooney volleyball team after its season. The Cougars reached the state title game for the first time in program history, defeating Cardinal Gibbons 3-1 (25-23, 25-27, 25-22, 25-23) on Nov. 10 in the state semifinals. Senior Kali Plattner had 12 kills, 15 digs and two aces. Junior Sophia Hritz had 10 kills, 17 digs and two aces, and junior Anna Klemeyer had eight kills and five blocks.
Even though the Cougars would lose to Trinity Catholic 3-2 in the title game, Sutton said he was proud of everything the team accomplished in 2018.
“I’ll remember the girls,” Sutton said. “The smiles. The cheers. The celebrations. The roads. On the bus. The hotels.
“I don’t think people took us seriously going into this year, or as seriously as the goals we had. We have shown everybody that these girls can play. We are building something, something special. Going forward, I think everybody knows who Cardinal Mooney is. I have always said, ‘You can’t sneak your way into a title.’ You have to bust some doors down. You have to make some waves, and I think that just happened. We put ourselves on the map.”
4 — Sarasota boys cross country runner gets repeat gold
One gold medal is nice. A repeat gold is even better.
That’s a feeling Sarasota High senior boys cross country runner Ben Hartvigsen knows well. Hartvigsen won his second-consecutive state title on Nov. 10 in Tallahassee, finishing the race in 15:27.05.
The wild part? That was not Hartvigsen’s fastest race of the season. Not even close.
He, alongside a handful of teammates, raced in Cary, N.C, on Oct. 6 at the Great American Cross Country Festival, where some of the best runners in the country went head-to-head.
Hartvigsen set the Sarasota High record for fastest cross-country time at the festival: 15:08.90, almost 20 seconds faster than his state title-winning time. Hartvigsen finished eighth in the Great American race, a testament to the level of competition there.
“It’s pretty mind-blowing,” Hartvigsen said of his record. “I ran faster than I thought I could at this point. I thought I might have a shot at it later in the season, but not now. It’s made me think back to former Sarasota High champions like Adam Bradtmueller and Zack Summerall. They were role models for me, Adam especially.”
Hartvigsen said he learned the importance of culture from Bradtmueller, as did the entire program. Hard work pays off. Without it, Hartvigsen said, you won’t get where you want to be. Hartvigsen said he also learned to set high goals, because you’ll never know you can reach them otherwise. He’s taken Bradtmueller teachings and run with them (literally).
He’ll keeping running for the foreseeable future. On Nov. 15, Hartvigsen announced his commitment to compete for Harvard University in 2019.
3 — Sarasota's Torres repeats as high jump champ
Sarasota High senior Jaasiel Torres repeated as the 4A boys high jump champion and, in the end, his biggest competition was himself.
Torres eventually cleared 7.03 feet, falling just short of the 4A state record of 7.15 feet. He set a personal record in the process, having never previously cleared seven feet.
Torres said there was some pressure to repeat as champion from his coaching staff, who always are looking to push him to his limits, but he didn't put any on himself. Torres would have had a good time even if he didn't win, he said, though he's happy he did. In terms of conditions, this year's title defense was much easier than last year's win, when he and his fellow jumpers dealt with rain, wind and cold.
"You have to enjoy what you do," Torres said with a smile. "If you don't love what you do, then you're not going to give it all you've got. It was a little rough last year. The weather was nice this year, which helped a lot. There was a nice breeze going though, it felt really good.
"This means a lot, being a two-time champion. I finally broke seven (feet). That's a goal I have been pushing for. It felt good to do it, especially at the state meet like this."
Torres is fond of the University of North Florida's Hodges Stadium near Jacksonville, and that's a good thing: He'll be competing for the Ospreys in 2019.
2 — Booker High's McKay sets record with weightlifting title
Christian McKay has always been strong, physically.
Her parents, Frank McKay and Leslie Burch, have told her stories about her strength. They would hold one of their arms out for her to grab, and a 2-year-old McKay would use it as a pull-up bar. It's a story that would work as the opening chapter of a Greek myth. McKay vaguely remembers doing it once. So her story, unlike that of Heracles or Achilles, has some merit.
McKay's literal strong start didn't lead to much for a while. She never played sports, and though she liked running, she never ran an actual race. She didn't take regular visits to the gym or weight room. She didn't see a reason to.
Then, she got to Booker High. Things were harder now. Life was more stressful. McKay didn't know if she'd be able to handle it for four years, so as a sophomore, McKay decided to try weightlifting. She knew it would be a challenge, and that was the point -- she wanted to get stronger mentally.
It worked, McKay said, and she became one of the best weightlifters in Florida. In February, the senior won the Class 1A weightlifting title in the 183-pound division, bench pressing a state-record 240 pounds along the way. McKay’s total of 430 pounds (190 in the clean-and-jerk) was 55 pounds more than second-place finisher Yasmine Heflin of Leesburg High.
The stories told of McKay through the Booker hallways will truly be the stuff of legend.
1 — Riverview's Weyant wins two swimming golds at state meet
Before the season, Riverview High swim coach Brent Arckey called junior girls swimmer Emma Weyant a “top-50, if not top-30, swimmer in the country.”
By the end of the year, she proved him right.
Weyant took home gold medals in the 200-yard individual medley (1:58.07) and the 500-yard freestyle (4:44.32) at the FHSAA Class 4A championships on Nov. 10. While the IM was relatively close, she won the freestyle by approximately six seconds. She finished second in both events in 2017, and Weyant said in September she was determined to change that.
Weyant also did something impressive this summer, with the American flag etched in her swim cap. Weyant qualified to represent her country in the 2018 Junior Pan Pacific Championships on Aug. 23-26 in Suva, Fiji, where she won the girls 400 IM in 4:40.64. That time included a blistering 1:20.42 breaststroke split in the second half of the race, which helped her come from behind to win.
How to split IM events, and how to come from behind at the halfway point, was Weyant’s biggest takeaway from the event, she said.
Maybe she doesn’t take the IM gold at states if she doesn’t go to the “Pan-Pac Championships.”
Or maybe she does, because Weyant is a talent that is just getting started.