Update: Lakewood Ranch will now play Oakleaf at 6:30 p.m. on May 23.
Walking toward the Lakewood Ranch High softball team’s practice on May 19, I was greeted by three things: A deluge of rain, a burst of lightning and a storm of synthesizers, which I soon recognized as belonging to Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”
It felt more like a training montage in an apocalyptic Marvel movie than a softball practice, but there the Mustangs were, getting ready for their state semifinal game against Oakleaf High on May 22 (now May 23 - see above update). The game, originally scheduled for May 18, has been delayed twice due to inclement weather in Vero Beach. Mustangs coach T.J. Goelz said he wanted his team to get used to playing in damp conditions, since it might face some whenever the Oakleaf game does get played.
Even torrential rains couldn’t dampen the spirits of the Mustangs players. This is the first time the program has reached the semifinal game since 2013. No one on the current team, players or coaches, was around then. For everyone involved, this is a brand new experience, and they plan on making the three-hour drive worth their while.
“It was the greatest feeling ever,” senior outfielder Olivia Danko said of their 9-2 win over Plant City, the team that knocked out the Mustangs in 2017 in the regional final. “Getting redemption for last year, winning it for the seniors who didn’t get the chance (to reach the final four), it was awesome.
If we do end up winning this (state title) my senior year, I’ll remember it forever.”
Senior infielder Kailey Christian said the team knew, even in previous seasons, it had the capability of reaching the state tournament. This season, everything has come together, especially for those on their last rides.
“Us being seniors, it means that much more to us,” Christian said. “It’s cool that we’re finally getting the opportunity to go.”
When they arrive, they’ll greet Oakleaf, the defending state champion and the sixth-ranked team nationally according to MaxPreps. Lakewood Ranch is ranked 15th nationally in the same list, and beat Oakleaf 7-6 in nine innings on the road in March.
Christian said she’s heard from softball friends that the facilities at Historic Dodgertown, the Vero Beach complex hosting the tournament, are nice, including the toiletries. She and Danko laughed over their shared excitement of this. If there’s one word I’d use to describe this team, it’s “loose.” The Mustangs always have fun, and aren’t afraid to let their personalities shine through their play. As both a reporter and a fan of the game, that’s something I appreciate.
While the Lakewood Ranch seniors have been waiting for this moment for four years, Mustangs freshman Jillian Herbst has been thrown into it headfirst. Herbst started the season as a bench player, but muscled her way into the lineup just as the playoffs began thanks to her hard work in practice and her speed. She’ll be hitting leadoff and playing left field for Lakewood Ranch against Oakleaf. Herbst said her first year couldn’t have gone better — so far.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “When I first joined the team, I expected us to be good, but this has been a dream come true.”
The Mustangs’ coach, Goelz, said he’s proud of the way this team has coalesced. The secret ingredient, he said, is that all his players are good kids. The Mustangs started the year with 18 players on their varsity roster and called up two more during the season. Goelz said he was told by others not to keep that many players, for fear of angering those whose playing time isn’t found satisfactory. He did it anyway, and he’s glad he did. There’s been zero behind-the-scenes drama, and everyone has sacrificed for the good of the program.
When asked what the program’s first-ever state title would mean to him, Goelz kept it simple.
“It would be pretty special,” he said, smiling.
The Mustangs were eventually forced to retreat to their locker room during the storm. Practice may have been washed away, but Lakewood Ranch won’t let Oakleaf do the same to their title hopes without a fight.