Lakewood Ranch High alumna McKenzie Clark had advice for those who follow in her footsteps.
"Don't take anything for granted," Clark said. "Hold on to your memories, because they can be taken away from you in an instant."
Clark, who graduated July 29, played on the Lakewood Ranch softball team, which had its spring season cut short because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clark, who will play for Clemson next season, was disappointed, especially since the Mustangs were expected to compete for a state title after finishing as the state runner-up in 2019.
The spring season didn't work out, but Clark and five of her senior Lakewood Ranch teammates — Avery Goelz, Claire Davidson, Kali Reis, Payton Kinney and Emma Anthony — were able to find closure on their high school careers through the travel ball season.
The Tampa Mustangs 18U roster featured eight Lakewood Ranch players, but Jillian Herbst and Sydney McCray are underclassmen, two of the three such players on the roster. The rest of the Lakewood Ranch contingent helped form the base of a travel program that finished its summer schedule 40-4 and took home a fifth-place trophy at the 2020 USA Softball GOLD National Championships in Oklahoma City July 19-25.
TJ Goelz, who coaches both Lakewood Ranch and the Tampa Mustangs, said he has watched this class of seniors play ball for a decade.
"From an early age, there was clearly athleticism in them," Goelz said. "There was a desire to compete among top competition, from them and from their families, too."
Goelz said the players already were showing could compete nationally by the time they were 14. He said the experience of competing in national tournaments built confidence and showed them areas they needed to improve to be the best. It raised their expectations and they always expected to be a national contender.
He called their desire to be the best "unbelievable."
As the travel team placed higher on a national scale, the success drew even more talented players to the team.
"We kept getting better and they kept putting in the work, even outside of scheduled practices," TJ Goelz said. "That's why all those kids are going Division 1. Even though they never quite won the big one, they finished top-five at the national championships four out of the last five years. I know no other team in Florida can say that. In my mind, they're the best travel team in Florida history."
Goelz said he had some initial worries about taking his team out of state for the summer tournaments with the pandemic still raging. He talked with each player's family about it, he said, and told them the team would be taking all precautions, including social distancing and constantly using hand sanitizer. Goelz said he would take regular temperature checks of the players and coaches and would limit the team's usual outside activities, like going to movie theaters or theme parks, instead having them enjoy each other's company in their hotel rooms. He also promised each family that their player would not lose their spot on the team if they decided not to travel this summer.
In the end, to Goelz's surprise, every player decided to play.
For players like Clark — who teammates call "Pie" — this meant the summer season could be the fitting ending they did not get to have in the spring.
"I never realized how much I leaned on softball to see my friends until it was taken away," Clark said. "We had some Zoom calls after the (spring) season was canceled, but those weren't the same. I missed joking with them. I missed the bus rides and the dinners. It was always the small things that meant the most to us. Being together again and getting to finish things with them meant everything to me."
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.