As the 2021 high school softball season gets underway, it's difficult for Lakewood Ranch High not to dwell on what might have been.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 season consisted of just eight games. The Mustangs went 8-0, outscoring their opponents 83-4 and finishing atop MaxPreps' national rankings. Head Coach T.J. Goelz is confident his team could have won the state title last spring. He's almost as confident his team would have been crowned the national champion in the rankings.
The Mustangs graduated eight players now on NCAA Division I teams, and not all of them were starters. That's how immense the talent of the program was last season.
In 2021, things are different. Goelz said the team is good enough to win a state title if the team develops like he expects over the course of the season.
"We have always brought younger players onto the roster," Goelz said. "We tell them, 'Listen, this might not be your year. You might not get the reps you want, or any reps. But the growth you're going to get from being around these older players will be worth it. You're going to grow so much faster."
Goelz said Jillian Herbst and Sydney McCray are two examples of the Mustangs' development system at work. Herbst, a senior outfielder, didn't play much her freshman year until the last few weeks of the regular season. She proved herself in practice and earned playing time over some senior teammates. That postseason, Herbst hit .500, helping the team reach the state semifinals. She never lost her starting spot and is now committed to Colgate University.
McCray, now a junior outfielder, played more immediately as a freshman, but only as a pinch runner.
"She was like a baby cheetah," Goelz said. "Fast, but with limbs flailing all over the place. She was still learning how to play the game."
That offseason, Goelz said, McCray dedicated herself to becoming as well-rounded a player as her teammates. In last year's shortened season, McCray hit .308.
Herbst and McCray, along with sophomore outfielder Cassidy McLellan, junior infielder Kelsey Vogel and senior infielder Faith Ross, are now team captains. They know the level of work required to reach the state finals, and they believe this team has what it takes.
"Everyone on the team has this natural athleticism," McCray said. "I think Coach T.J. (Goelz) will be able to bring the best of that athleticism out of everyone. The coaches give us 100% of themselves out here and we're going to do the same for them."
Herbst said simply wearing the team's green and black uniform again is a blessing after last season. She said she took an extra minute looking at it in her mirror before the team's first practice. It had been a while, Herbst said.
She wanted to soak it in. Lakewood Ranch is a special program, she said. There is a lot of history to live up to, especially recently, and Herbst said the qualities that made past teams so fearsome, including a smooth chemistry, will be back despite the roster turnover.
"The expectations don't change," Herbst said. "This group is going to make its own legacy."