Traditionally, pitching decides high school softball championship games.
The Lakewood Ranch High softball program has learned this lesson in recent years, getting shut out by Winter Springs High 3-0 in the 2019 state championship game and losing 1-0 to Oakleaf High in the state semifinals. Throughout the 2021 season, Mustangs Coach TJ Goelz has preached to his team that the same fate would not befall it this season, thanks to the hard work the team was putting in each day.
Goelz was right. On Saturday, the Mustangs became an exception to the rule.
Lakewood Ranch (30-2) won the Class 7A state championship at Legends Way Ballfields in Clermont, run-ruling previously undefeated Park Vista High (29-1) in six innings, winning 14-4. Lakewood Ranch entered the game ranked No. 4 nationally by USA Today; Park Vista was No. 5. That didn’t matter to the Mustangs offense, which saw eight of its nine regulars get base hits.
"Starting way back in October, we talked about playing Park Vista in this game," Goelz said. "It's kind of poetic that it happened. This feels amazing. I just always felt like we were going to do this, especially after the second Newsome game [in the regional semifinals]. Putting up 15 runs against that team and that pitching, there was just a different aura around the hitting and the confidence in these kids. You can see it in their eyes. Before every game, I say to them, 'Let me check the eyeballs.' I look around and they are dialed in. They wanted this moment."
The Mustangs got the offensive parade started early, with sophomore Cassidy McLellan scoring on a fielder’s choice from junior Ella Coiner, who also got the start on the mound. Lakewood Ranch added three more runs in the second inning, one on an RBI single from junior Grace Hogie and two on a double by senior Jillian Herbst.
Coiner pitched the game’s first two innings, allowing zero runs, before giving way to sophomore Olivia Laney, who was pitching for the first time since April 29 because of arm soreness. Laney went 3.1 innings allowing one earned run (four total runs because of three Mustangs errors) on five hits. With one out in the top of the sixth inning, after Park Vista cut the lead to 6-4, Goelz went back to Coiner to finish the game. Goelz said he believed Park Vista would try a series of bunts against Laney but swing away against Coiner. Bunts had plagued the Mustangs defense earlier in the game, so he made the switch.
"Coach just asked me, 'Are you ready?'" Coiner said. "I said, 'Of course, let's pound the mound, let's go.' I was able to get some warm-up pitches in so I wasn't cold, and I trusted my defense so much."
Coiner got the last two outs of the inning, and the two teams prepared for a nerve-wracking finish.
It never came. The Mustangs' offense made sure of that.
Lakewood Ranch scored eight runs in the bottom of the sixth. McLellan led off the inning with a triple — and then ended the game with another triple eight batters later, one that scored the game's final three runs. In between was a barrage of base hits, including doubles from Herbst and junior Taylor Shepherd.
"[Ending the game] was a great feeling," McLellan said. "It was super exciting. I knew when I hit it that it was going to score everyone. Coach TJ had yelled to [junior Grace] Hogie on first base that she was scoring if the hit went into the gap, so I knew she would be running hard."
Coiner said as much fun as she was having raising the trophy and receiving her medal, the real fun would be had on the bus ride home.
"We are going to be lit," Coiner said. "It is going to be on fire. I'm so proud of my girls."