It has been five and a half months since I have covered a high school sports game in person.
It feels even longer than that. Sports are great because of the communities they form. When those communities get separated, well, the sports beat can be a lonely place. That feeling comes to end on Friday, when Sarasota County teams in all fall sports can hold matches again. Not every program will come back immediately, but it's the start of the process, and that's something. I'm excited to cover those communities the same way we always have.
To celebrate, I've put together a preview of sorts below, with a spotlight on each of our area's four football programs, plus a general overview of the best and brightest in the other fall sports. This area is so talented, I couldn't include everyone who will make an impression this fall — but I included a lot.
Let's start with football, where Riverview High keeps on rolling. The Rams are coming off a playoff appearance after finishing 9-3 and should be in contention for another thanks to returning players like Michael Hayes, the do-it-all senior who will return to running back this season; Sambo Ung Jr., the senior corner who snagged nine interceptions in 2019; tight end/long snapper Michael Fraraccio, who is committed to play for the University of Pennsylvania; and Omari Hayes, a junior wide receiver and Michael Hayes' brother. He's one of the quickest players in the county. The Rams have also made a number of changes to their coaching staff, most notably adding former NFL head coach Todd Haley as offensive coordinator. It remains to be seen how Haley will handle talent like the Hayes brothers, but the results are sure to be fascinating.
At Sarasota High, Brody Wiseman takes over the program from Spencer Hodges, who turned around the Sailors, leading them to a 6-4 record in 2019 and setting a record for points scored in a season (335). But Wiseman was the offensive coordinator last season. He knows his players. As much as any coaching transition can be smooth, this one should be, despite the Sailors losing a lot of talent to graduation, including star running back Brian Battie (now on scholarship at South Florida) and starting quarterback Vince Parisi. Replacing those two will be keys for the team, but don't count out the Sailors. They still have talent, especially on defense, where senior captains Jamall Thompson (linebacker), Dominic Bennett (safety) and Terrell Pack (a bit of everything) are on the prowl. Bennett has also played running back in the past and could step into Battie's role.
Booker High will look to rebound from a 2-8 season in 2019, the first season under coach Baraka Atkins. The Tornadoes dealt with a multitude of injuries on top of an already small roster. In 2020, the Tornadoes should perform better, assuming they can stay healthy. Senior DeJuan Gordon, a running back, should be the focal point of the offense. He was injured in week five last season, but is capable of big-time performances, like when he ran for 158 yards in the Tornadoes' 2018 spring game against Lakewood Ranch High.
Cardinal Mooney High, like Sarasota, is in a year of transition, with former Riverview assistant Jared Clark taking over for Paul Maechtle, who retired in December. Clark, a Mooney alumnus, is inheriting a program that went 2-8 in 2019, when the Cougars defense gave up 30 or more points in seven of 10 games. Mooney will also have to replace quarterback Ryan Bolduc and wide receiver Meko Mayes, who have since graduated. The Cougars do return sophomore running back Lauriel Trotman and senior tight end Cameron Heald, both of whom can do damage.
Of course, football is far from the only sport playing this fall. Mooney's volleyball program won a state title in 2019, and coach Chad Sutton recently said his team plans on being as good as ever despite the unusual circumstances the world finds itself in right now.
"Every kid is coming back knowing it’s a new year," Sutton said. "Some people say we're the defending or reigning state champs but we haven’t accomplished anything yet. What we do have is the blueprint to do it again."
There are returning state champions in golf and swimming, too. On the links, Riverview's Jacqueline Putrino, a junior, will attempt to defend her girls individual title (with senior teammate Aaron Whitley not far behind). In the pool, Cardinal Mooney sophomore Michaela Mattes will look to repeat in the girls 500-yard freestyle and jump from silver to gold in the 200-yard individual medley. Boys junior Liam Custer won a silver medal in the 200-yard individual medley and a bronze medal 500-yard freestyle for Riverview last year and could now challenge for golds, as could senior Jazon Brzozowski, who took silver in the 500 free.
There are plenty of strong cross country runners returning this season as well. On the boys side, that includes Sarasota senior Orlando Cicilioni and Riverview's Brendan Roper and Roman Caragiulo. On the girls side, that's Sarasota senior Kasumi Wade and junior Janel Mitchell, and Cardinal Mooney senior Rachel Jarrett.