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Defending state champ Mustangs rest softball hopes on a sophomore pitcher

Lakewood Ranch sophomore Ella Dodge, in her first year as a high school pitcher, will have to handle state's best teams.

Sophomore Ella Dodge has become the Lakewood Ranch High softball team's ace this season after missing her freshman season with a back injury.
Sophomore Ella Dodge has become the Lakewood Ranch High softball team's ace this season after missing her freshman season with a back injury.
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What's scarier than the 2021 Lakewood Ranch softball team?

That same basic roster with a pitcher who never gets rattled. 

Sophomore pitcher Ella Dodge has become the Lakewood Ranch High softball team's workhorse despite missing the 2021 season due to a broken bone in her back, suffered as a result of overwork from frequent travel team play.

Despite the injury and recovery time — Dodge started pitching regularly again during the 2021 summer — Dodge was confident that she would enter the 2022 season with a chance to be the team's No. 1 pitcher.

Even though the Mustangs went 30-2 and won the state title last season, pitching was a question mark throughout the postseason thanks to injuries and up-and-down results on the mound. The team's offense was so good it didn't matter. Ella Coiner, now a senior, started and won the state title game, but Coiner has said she feels more comfortable as a position player who occasionally helps on the hill rather than an everyday pitcher. 

Mustangs Coach TJ Goelz called sophomore pitcher Ella Dodge a
Mustangs Coach TJ Goelz called sophomore pitcher Ella Dodge a "bulldog on the mound" and praised her ability to stay calm in tense situations.

Both have contributed so far, as has junior Peyton Knight, but Dodge is viewed as the No. 1 starter. Pitching 88 2/3 innings as of April 22, Dodge has a 1.34 ERA against a slate of the toughest teams in the state. Facing the best has become common on Lakewood Ranch's schedule under Coach TJ Goelz. More than her ERA, Dodge has impressed Goelz with her mental toughness. Goelz called Dodge a "bulldog on the mound" and praised her ability to shake off any mistakes she makes. 

"Her teammates recognize that as well," Goelz said. "They have fed off that. It's different when you see a pitcher starting to crumble. When we're on the other side and we see that, we smell blood. We're going in for the kill. That's why we always talking about, you know, 'Don't give them anything. Stay icy. Nothing affects you. Don't get too high or too low.' Ella has been able to do that. It's a rare quality in a sophomore. She has been impressive." 

Dodge said she feels no ill effects from her back injury and Goelz said the coaching staff is constantly checking with her to make sure she does not feel overworked. Goelz also has placed special restrictions on Dodge, like a "no diving while fielding" rule.

Goelz's favorite thing about Dodge is her ability to consistently throw strikes. As of April 22, she has racked up 134 strikeouts this year and she has walked just nine batters. 

"That is special," Goelz said. 

He's right. Over the years, I've seen too many pitchers have meltdowns after cruising to start the game. All it takes is one string of mistakes, or a string of bad luck, to get pitchers thrown off their game. After watching Dodge, I know why Goelz is confident in the team's ability to win with her pitching. 

She showed off her bulldog mentality April 19 in the team's 7-2 home win over Fort Myers High. Two Fort Myers batters reached base in the top of the first on softly hit balls that found holes in the Mustangs' defense. Even though there were two outs, having a runner in scoring position that early in a game can rattle some pitchers — but not Dodge.

She struck out the next hitter to get out of the jam and only was tested again in the third inning when two defensive misplays by the Mustangs — a missed ball in the outfield that was ruled a hit and a grounder to shortstop that bounced off a glove for an error — led to two runs coming home. Neither was charged to Dodge. She went four innings and racked up eight strikeouts. Once the Mustangs established a commanding lead, Coiner came in to finish off the game. 

It helps, of course, that the Mustangs still have a world-class offense. Lakewood Ranch, which returned eight players to its lineup, is averaging just over nine runs per game. Five of the team's lineup regulars are hitting over .400, including junior outfielder Cassidy McLellan, the Florida commit who continues to put up eye-popping numbers: a .557 average, nine doubles, three triples, two home runs, 27 RBIs and 20 steals. 

Dodge said pitching behind such an offense makes it easy to forget about mistakes. 

"Even if we give up a run, I know we're going to get it back," Dodge said. 

That has been true in all but two games, both against the same opponent. Lakewood Ranch (18-2 as of April 22) dropped back-to-back games to Lake Brantley High (16-4) in March, the first an 11-0 laugher on the road and the second a 5-3 defeat at home. There's no sugarcoating the first game. The Mustangs did just about everything wrong. It was team's worst defeat since Goelz took over the program. The second game, though, Goelz was not as mad about, calling it a learning experience for both his hitters and hits pitchers. In both games, the Mustangs faced Patriots senior Hannah Marien, a Stetson commit whom Goelz called one of the best pitchers in the state. The team gained data from getting to face her twice, Goelz said, things the team will use if they see her again — which would be in the Class 7A state championship game. 

It seems a healthy bet. Lakewood Ranch, ranked 13th nationally by MaxPreps, is still the top-ranked team in Florida despite the two losses. Lake Brantley is fifth in the state but second in Class 7A. How would a third game between the two teams go? It's hard to say. Despite Lake Brantley's past dominance, the Patriots have also dropped double the amount of games the Mustangs have, and to worse teams. Marien is a tough pitcher, but the Mustangs have one of those, too, one that in her first real season of varsity softball keeps getting better. Goelz said Dodge's pitch location has improved dramatically over the last few weeks. She's getting softer contact off the bat as a result. 

If the two teams do meet again, I'll be excited to watch it play out. I don't know who will win. I do know that Lakewood Ranch, and its sophomore ace, feel confident in their ability to do so. 

"We just want to keep this going," Dodge said. "I think we have found 'the feel.' We're playing loose and we're playing well. We're going to continue working hard each practice and getting timely hits and pitching and fielding well."



Ryan Kohn

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.

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