Championships and final four appearances were abundant.
The 2018-2019 high school sports season is complete.
It was as success-filled for area athletes as the community has come to expect. It was also filled with smaller moments of triumph and glimpses of bright futures, ensuring the area's golden aura shall stay in tact for a while.
But only a finite amount of these moments, as numerous as they are, can be considered the best of the best. Here are our top-ten Sarasota sports moments of the season.
10 — Riverview beach volleyball finishes second in first year
It was Riverview High's inaugural beach volleyball season, three years after the sport was adopted by the Sunshine State Athletic Conference, and the Rams wasted no time in translating the program's indoor success to the sand.
Led by a top pairing of sophomore Madison Binkley and freshman McKenna Flaherty, Riverview advanced to the AA (large school) finals of the SSAC state championships on April 27 in Taveras, beating Braden River High to get there.
The Rams were one of two AA programs to field two full rosters — called 'Riverview Team 1' and 'Riverview Team 2,' but serving the functions of varsity and junior varsity teams — and their depth, head coach Annie Howard said, was one of its biggest strengths. The Rams’ top team went undefeated, including a 4-0 record in district matches, on their way to an automatic state bid.
“We want to build this,” Howard said. “We saw there was no outlet for it (beach volleyball) and we had the support of the school. We are making a serious program.”
The Rams lost to Merritt Island High in the finals, but for an inaugural season, they could not have dreamed of a better start.
9 — Sailors freshman swimmer wins four races at first meet
At her first high school swim meet on Sept. 8, in races that are not her forte, Natalie Stafford proved herself.
The freshman, who swims for Sarasota High but attends Suncoast Polytechnical High, first proved herself in the 2018 Phil “Boomer” Denis Invitational’s 200-yard medley relay, swimming the anchoring freestyle portion in 24.58 seconds to help the Sailors earn a gold medal and a 1:54.86 overall time. That was cool enough, Stafford said, but then she swam the individual 50 freestyle.
She won that, too, in 25.90 seconds.
“It was cool that I won, but then I had to get ready for my other races,” Stafford said. “There was no time to think about it.”
Stafford would go on to win the 100 freestyle (55.43) and swim the second, and fastest, leg (25.24) of the gold medal 200 freestyle relay team. That's four first-place finishes in Stafford's first high school meet.
After the bustle of the Denis Invitational, Stafford had plenty of time to think about her accomplishment. She didn't expect to win, she said, in part because she didn't know what to expect. Not only was this her first meet, but Stafford also is typically a distance swimmer. She prefers long races, she said, because there’s more room for error. With sprints, there’s no time to recover from mistakes.
Thankfully for Stafford, she didn’t make any costly ones. As her career continues, look for plenty more gold medals to appear around her neck.
8 — Booker girls basketball reaches the elite eight
During the early weeks of the Booker High girls basketball team’s season, things were shaky.
Four transfer players came into the program — two seniors (Kaitlin Bell and Kaliyah Newell), a junior (Miah Lowman) and a sophomore (Jalisa Allen). Those players, plus Booker’s returnees, took a long time to gel. Not only was their play a bit off, but also was their chemistry.
“In practice, we would fight all the time,” Bell said. “It took a while (to come together).”
The Tornadoes were winning, but not playing up to their potential, and not playing up to coach Shantia Grace’s standards. Then the team won 13 consecutive games, including a playoff run that took Booker to the regional semifinals (Elite Eight).
Grace knew it was a matter of when, and not if, they would find that groove. The team, Grace said, has finally started playing like a unit. Bell pointed to the team’s game on Jan. 4, a loss to Braden River High, as when the Tornadoes’ focus started to change, even if its play didn’t for a few more games.
“That opened our eyes,” Bell said. “We had to keep our heads high and start working as a team.”
And as for the vibe around the team?
“No more fighting,” Bell said. “We just joke around all the time.”
The Tornadoes would lose 37-36 to Southeast High on Feb. 22 in the regional semis, but they found a culture that will extend into the future.
7 — Cardinal Mooney senior throws first pitch of a lifetime
When Jaelen Childs took the field before Cardinal Mooney baseball team’s game against Bishop Verot on April 4, you could hear nothing but silence.
Until, that is, the PA announcer said his name and welcomed him to throw out the first pitch. Then, nothing but cheers.
Childs, a senior, had never played an inning for Cardinal Mooney. He moved to Sarasota from Chicago over the summer. An outfielder and pitcher, he was looking forward to continuing his baseball career at Mooney. He was on track to do so until his Lexus was T-boned by a car running a red light Jan. 31. The accident left him with a broken pelvis and left femur, plus internal bleeding. Luckily, Childs was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital quickly, and doctors were able to stop the bleeding. Multiple surgeries later, Childs was on the long road to recovery.
Childs was released from Sarasota Memorial Hospital on April 1, three days before his first pitch. Jaelen’s mother, Lisa Childs, said doctors anticipate an eventual full recovery.
“I had tears of joy,” Lisa Childs said of his pitch. “Seeing him smile and be in an element where he feels comfortable meant everything.”
He threw a perfect strike.
6 — Senior helps Cardinal Mooney lacrosse match history by making his own
On a night when the Cardinal Mooney boys lacrosse program repeated its deepest postseason run, one of its players made history of his own.
He did it, as his teammates said, by going “McMahon mode.”
Senior attacker MJ McMahon, a University of Utah signee, recorded his 400th-career point in Mooney’s 15-5 home win against Barron Collier High in the Florida High School Athletic Association regional semifinals April 30. It came on a goal that gave Mooney a 5-2 lead in the first half. He finished with three goals and three assists.
“I didn’t even realize it,” McMahon said. “I knew somewhere in the back of my mind, but once the game started, I wasn’t thinking about it at all.
“It’s an accomplishment, for sure. It goes to the dedication of the game, all the hours I put into it and, especially, my teammates allowing me to get into open spots and finding me. Or me giving them the ball and them finishing. It shows how complete our team is.”
Mooney would lose to Jupiter High in the regional finals — 14-13 in overtime — May 3, but the accomplishments of the team and of McMahon still loom large.
5 — Riverview football reaches first state semifinal since 2004
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.”
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.
4 — Cardinal Mooney volleyball reaches first state championship
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.”
3 — Sailors senior repeats as cross country champ
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 will keep running for the foreseeable future. On Nov. 15, Hartvigsen announced his commitment to compete for Harvard University in 2019.
2 — Sarasota senior makes gold medal leap at track championships
Track and field gold has once again come to Sarasota High. This time, it came from an unexpected place.
Sarasota High senior Robbie Peterson qualified fifth in the 4A boys triple jump. He had been dealing with a painful shin injury in the days leading up to the championships on May 4. Yet when all the sand in the triple jump pit had been blasted, it was Peterson who stood atop the podium, gold around his neck.
Peterson leaped 49 feet, 0.25 inches (or 14.94 meters) on his first attempt of the day. It held up as the winning distance and obliterated Peterson's previous personal best distance of 46 feet, 5.5 inches. It was the longest recorded jump in the state this season.
"I never doubted," Peterson said. "I have been training all (football) offseason. I came in with the mindset of jumping a high 14 (meters) and that is what happened.
"Yesterday I got third in high jump. I was upset about that one, so I said to myself, 'Alright, I'm going to bring it home (in the triple jump).' And I did, on my first jump. It feels good. It's still unbelievable. I jumped a 14.9 and I'm still in high school."
Peterson only leaped twice in the triple jump because of his shin injuries. He did not want to push them too far, he said, so however the other competitors jumped, he would be content with his outing.
In this case, resting on his laurels proved the correct move.
1 — Riverview girls swimmer wins twice 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 last 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.