Lakewood Ranch High softball Coach TJ Goelz did not want to see his team get shut out again to derail its quest for a 7A state championship.
But any demons that lingered from past postseason shutouts were officially exorcised May 22 at Legends Way Ballfields in Clermont as the Mustangs crushed undefeated Park Vista High 14-4 to win the program's first state championship.
"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 always felt like we were going to do this, especially after the second Newsome game [in the regional semifinals May 11]. Putting up 15 runs against that team and that pitching, there was just a different aura around the confidence in these kids. You could see it in their eyes. Before every game, I said to them, 'Let me check the eyeballs.' I looked around and they were dialed in. They wanted this moment."
Despite prolific offenses from 2017-2019 (COVID-19 cancelled last year's playoffs), the Mustangs were shut out 1-0 by Plant City in the 2017 regional finals, 1-0 by Oakleaf High in the 2018 state semifinal and 3-0 by Winter Springs in the 2019 championship game.
Goelz said his 2020 team, which featured eight seniors now playing on NCAA Division I softball teams, would have won a state title if not for the pandemic.
So Goelz decided it had to happen in 2021. His Mustangs, who finished 30-2, had to come up with a different offensive strategy in the playoffs.
Toward the end of April, Goelz said he worked with his players on taking more pitches and force opposing pitchers to throw four to five pitches, at least, to each batter. He wanted his players to be more patient at the plate.
It went against some of the Mustangs' more aggressive nature, but it was necessary, Goelz said. He said that's how runs are scored against pitchers at the top level.
The plate discipline approach worked better than even Goelz thought it would. In the team's state semifinal game May 21 at Legends Way Ballfields in Clermont, the Mustangs only needed four innings to defeat Miami Palmetto 17-2. The next day, in the state championship game, the Mustangs earned another run-rule win, exploding for eight runs in the sixth inning for the 10-run margin of victory against the Cobras.
Cassidy McLellan's one-out, bases-loaded triple ended the game for Lakewood Ranch in the sixth. It was her second triple of the inning.
"It was a great feeling," McLellan said of ending the game with her triple. "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."
The celebration erupted from the Mustangs' dugout as the players rushed to greet McLellan. The years of pent-up offensive frustration were released.
Senior outfielder Jillian Herbst, who went 2-4 with two doubles and three RBIs, said the team never forgot the feeling of 2019's championship game loss, and praised the team's coaches for their guidance on the way to a chance at redemption.
Entering the championship game, Lakewood Ranch was ranked No. 4 nationally by USA Today while Park Vista was No. 5. Lakewood Ranch's state title was the first by any Manatee County high school team.
The Lakewood Ranch offense had 13 hits overall, including seven-extra base hits, and they also took advantage of six Cobras' errors. The Mustangs had 31 hits in the two games, including two homers, two triples, a single and six RBI from McLellan.
The Mustangs will have a chance to repeat in 2022 as well. Lakewood Ranch will only lose one championship game starter, Herbst, to graduation. Of the returning eight, four will be seniors, and the person likeliest to take Herbst's outfield spot is Sydney McCray, who missed the season with an ACL injury but was a projected starter and will be a senior in 2022.
Herbst, who will play at Colgate University next season, said the state title win was the perfect way to cap her high school career after coming close so many times before.
"It's a much better feeling now, I'd say," Herbst said with a laugh. "We're here. We made it."
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.