You know a softball team is good when a 9-0 win leads to a yawn.
After the Lakewood Ranch High softball team beat Lake Region High by that score at home on Feb. 28, the reaction from players was not one of excitement. The Mustangs expect to win.
Lakewood Ranch is the No. 1-ranked high school team in the United States, according to MaxPreps' "Xcellent 25," a poll voted on by the site's staff of writers.
The win brought the Mustangs' record to 5-0 (now 6-0). It was just the team's second game to not be cut short by the mercy rule. Lakewood Ranch coach T.J. Goelz told his team it was good for them to play a full game, since that is what they will need to do once the playoffs arrive in May. Until then, he said, the team is taking things one game at a time, trying to bring the same energy level each time, no matter the opponent.
The Mustangs were briefly ranked No. 1 last year on their way to a 30-1 record, the lone loss coming in the state championship game against Winter Springs High (who was ranked No. 3 in the Xcellent 25). The feeling of being on top of the world isn't exactly new, in other words, but what is new is having the ranking bestowed on them this early in the season. There's no hiding the team's talent, and players know they are going to get their opponents' best shot each night.
If dealing with such pressure was purely an oral exercise, the Mustangs would ace the test.
"We keep it (the rankings) in the back of our minds," senior first baseman Avery Goelz said. "We use it to make sure we come into each game focused. That number can only go down, and as players, we can't let that ranking drop. We can't have a down game because we looked too far ahead."
It might seem strange for the No. 1 slot to go to a team that lost its final game of 2019, but the Mustangs are not most programs. They have eight seniors signed with NCAA D1 schools: Goelz and senior shortstop Kali Reis are headed to Florida, senior outfielder/pitcher Claire Davidson is going to Duke, pitcher/outfielder Payton Kinney is headed to Connecticut, senior catcher Mckenzie Clark is going to Clemson, senior pitcher Brooklyn Lucero is signed with North Carolina State, senior infielders Emma Anthony and Taylor Woodring are going to East Carolina. Junior outfielder Jillian Herbst signed with Colgate.
The craziest part? Those signees aren't locked into the team's lineup. Against Lake Region, the Mustangs started freshman Cassidy McLellan at second base. Sophomore outfielders Sydney McCray and Ella Coiner, sophomore infielder Kelsey Vogel and sophomore catcher Grace Hoagie also get plenty of playing time. It's the team's depth, not just its top-end talent, that makes the Mustangs so unique.
The one thing that could ruin the Mustangs' dreams of a state title is the proverbial "hot pitcher," the one that acts like a buzzsaw in the playoffs and shuts down every offense she faces. T.J. Goelz said the thought keeps him up at night. It happened last year with Winter Springs junior Aynslie Furbush, a Mississippi commit, who held the Mustangs' vaunted offense to one hit in the title game.
Goelz believes he has the key to solving such a situation — better pitch selection.
"It needs to be strong, on both sides of it," Goelz said. "They need to lay off pitches they shouldn't swing at, but also attack the pitches they should. I talked to Avery (Goelz) about that tonight. There was a pitch in her second at-bat that was perfect for her but she didn't swing. I asked her what happened and she said, 'I wasn't expecting to see that good of a pitch.' That's the mentality we cannot have. It has to be, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes, no.' We have to be ready to attack and then lay off it if we need to lay off it."
The Mustangs have months of tests, some tiny and some large, in front of them before the real work begins. It appears they have the attitude required to pass them all. Even the yawners provide lessons, and every lesson is valuable.
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.