What a year.
One of the best parts of being a sportswriter is watching athletes come out of nowhere to have huge seasons.
This year, like always, there were many of these stories, but the one that stands out involves Lakewood Ranch High quarterback Clayton Dees, who as a junior played his first season of high school football after coming from a baseball background.
Dees can sling the rock and is more than competent when using his feet as well. He finished the season with 1,704 passing yards and 13 touchdowns passes with only three interceptions. Dees also rushed for 391 yards and three touchdowns.
A first-year player racking up that much yardage is an impressive feat. Dees' play helped the Mustangs secure a winning record at 6-4.
Dees should improve on those numbers in 2023, and that should help the team to improve along with him.
Also on the football field, the turnaround performed by The Out-of-Door Academy football team was remarkable, going from a winless season to 9-1 and securing a playoff home win over St. Edward's High, 36-14.
What first-year Coach Rob Hollway and his staff were able to do in one offseason should be commended. Yes, the program was helped by members of the baseball team deciding to put on the pads, but Hollway still had to coach those great athletes to be football players and teach them an option run-heavy offensive scheme.
Hollway did more than teach X's and O's, he changed the culture of a program that was previously in a pit of despair. Hearing players talk about the night-and-day difference confirmed it.
ODA will lose several key players to graduation next year, so a step back in terms of wins and losses would be expected. But as long as Hollway is running the show, he Thunder is likely to have a competitive program.
East County also had some big events that weren't related to high school sports. For example, it isn't every day that you get to watch two professional golfers take on a pair of professional putters, but that's what happened at the PopStroke Tour Championship on Oct. 28. Rickie Fowler and Paula Creamer played in the inaugural event at PopStroke's University Town Center location in what was called the "25K Showdown." The duo went against Chris Johnson and Jacob Stasiulewicz, two players with experience in the Major Series of Putting, and lost by four strokes (three under par to one over par) over one 18-hole round.
The event itself was entertaining — Fowler kept putting through his legs, for instance — but the real fun was in talking with Fowler and Creamer, who had different perspectives on the event. Creamer was locked into trying to win, while Fowler was just there for a good time. In the end, I think everyone watching the event had a good time, too.
Speaking of golf, one of the most unique stories I was able to tell in 2022 was the story of Central Park resident Keith Heifner and his golf memorabilia collection. Heifner has a garage filled with unique golf clubs, plus hats, flags, pictures and more, all from various professional events. I even got to see his Bushwood Country Club hat and his Billy Baroo putter; as a fan of "Caddyshack," those items were particularly entertaining.
I couldn't write this column without mentioning all the water sports that East County sports fans get to watch at Nathan Benderson Park. While there were plenty of unique events — even the Last Paddler Standing event that lasted 48-straight hours earlier this month — the Nathan Benderson Park story I enjoyed most was profiling dragon boat Coach Angela Long during the 2022 Sarasota International Dragon Boat Festival. Hearing her paddlers speak to why they respect Long so much and everything she has done for them and the sport was moving. Long cares about winning races, but she also cares about her athletes. That shouldn't be a rarity in coaching, regardless of a team's competition level, yet it can be. Long is proof that there are still coaches willing to make a difference.
I'm all for underdog stories, but sometimes it's satisfying to watch a dominant team steamroll the competition and showcase its overwhelming levels of talent. That's why I had a great time covering the Lakewood Ranch High softball team's journey to back-to-back state championships in Clermont. The Mustangs went 30-2 for the second-straight season and won their state tournament games in convincing fashion, first beating Western High 11-3 on May 27 in the state semifinals, then beating Lake Brantley High — the team that handed the Mustangs their only two losses in the regular season — 8-2 in the championship game.
Hitting, pitching, defense — the Mustangs excelled at all of it. That's what made them so tough to play, so matchup-proof. Watching senior outfielder Sydney McCray, who missed the 2021 with a knee injury, come back and get three hits in the championship game was a particular thrill.
All of these things combined into a great 2022, as did my interactions with the East County sports community at large. It is because of you all that I get to tell the stories of these great athletes and events each year and I am thankful for that.
Here's to making more great memories, and telling more great stories, in 2023.