It’s nice when your perennial title-contending softball team returns four starters committed to NCAA Division I schools.
It’s even nicer when you add three more starters of the same ilk.
That is exactly what Lakewood Ranch High brings to the diamond this season, and it should strike fear in the hearts of every team the Mustangs face. Mainstays junior first baseman Avery Goelz (Florida), one of the top recruits in her class, and junior outfielder Taylor Woodring (East Carolina) are back to dominate at the dish, and junior pitchers Payton Kinney (Connecticut) and Brooklyn Lucero (North Carolina State) are back toeing the pitching rubber — and they can hit, too.
But the Mustangs have also reloaded at three other positions. Junior McKenzie Clark (Clemson), formerly of Sarasota Christian, is playing catcher and center field for team. According to MaxPreps, Clark hit for a .604 average last season, the sixth-best mark in the Florida High School Athletic Association’s Class 2A, with 15 of her 29 hits going for extra bases, including five home runs. Her .950 fielding percentage was 22nd in the class.
Junior shortstop Kali Reis (Central Florida) comes to the Mustangs from Braden River High. Reis hit for a .500 average last year, 18th-best in FHSAA Class 7A, with 16 of her 45 hits going for extra bases (two home runs). Reis also had a .968 fielding percentage, 24th-best in the class.
Claire Davidson’s (Auburn) journey to the Mustangs was the farthest. The junior pitcher/outfielder, a left-hander, played for West Potomac High in Alexandria, Va., last season. She missed most of her last high school season because of injury, but was still named to the All-Met (the Washington, D.C. metro area) honorable mention team by the Washington Post.
The trio also play for the Tampa Mustangs-TJ travel team coached by Mustangs head coach TJ Goelz.
Auburn coaches suggested Davidson play in the Tampa area for the competition she would get in national tournaments.
“The level of play down here, overall, is a lot better,” Davidson said. “All positions on the field, everyone can play. At my old school, our junior varsity was all girls who had never played before, and varsity had some of those girls, too. Here, all 18 of us on the roster can play, and play well.
“We are a very motivated team. We work hard. No one is guaranteed anything, so you have to continuously fight for your spot. It is a good culture.”
All three players have made an impact on the young season. Through the team's first three games, the Mustangs are 3-0. (Update: Now the team is 5-0, and yet to allow a run. The team is ranked eighth in the nation by MaxPreps.) Clark was 3-7 with three RBI, two walks and five runs scored. Reis was 5-9 with two RBIs and five runs scored. Davidson threw a complete game shutout against Riverview High Feb. 27 in a 3-0 win, with seven strikeouts, three hits allowed and zero walks. She also went 2-3 at the plate in that game.
I was at the Mustangs’ 10-0 win against Manatee Feb. 28, and I’m telling you:, there’s not an easy out on the team, and not a single pitcher I would want to face. I have been covering the team for three seasons now, and while they have always been an elite program, the talent level this season is above the others. I haven’t even mentioned players like senior infielder Maddie Koczersut, who hit .409 last year, and sophomore outfielder Jillian Herbst, who was named to the Miracle Sports All-State First Team last year for her playoff performance (.353, two runs scored and an RBI in the leadoff spot over four games).
Their coach thinks so, too. Actually, he took it a step farther than me, joking that the only thing that could mess up this season is coaching.
“On paper, this is the most talented high school team I have ever seen,” TJ Goelz said. “But ‘on paper’ does not mean anything. Every team, they know about us. They are gunning for us. We cannot have any letdowns. But if everything comes together and we execute, we are going to be really tough to beat.”
Goelz said he thinks of Lakewood Ranch as a college prep program, and he’s not wrong. This is the closest thing you will get to watching Division 1 softball in this area, and it is impressive. The team has fun playing, and in turn fans have fun watching. I encourage everyone to come to a few games and get a taste of the action.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.