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Defending state champion Mustangs off to fast start

Despite heavy graduation losses, the Lakewood Ranch High girls softball team is going for their third consecutive softball state title.

Lakewood Ranch sophomore Olivia Shephard rounds the bases after hitting her first varsity home run.
Lakewood Ranch sophomore Olivia Shephard rounds the bases after hitting her first varsity home run.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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The faces are different but the uniforms still say "Mustangs."

After going 30-2 and winning its second consecutive Class 7A title in 2022, an 8-2 win over Lake Brantley High, the Lakewood Ranch High girls softball team lost five starters or key contributors to graduation.

The other key loss was Head Coach T.J. Goelz, who stepped down from his position to spend more time with his family. 

Since then, Todd Lee, the team's junior varsity coach in 2022 and the father of Mustangs senior Amanda Lee, took over from Goelz, and the Mustangs have retooled, fusing a proven core of players with inexperienced athletes looking for their chance to shine. 

So far, with wins in all three of their games, the results have been the same.

"Back to back to back," Mustangs senior Cassidy McLellan said of her team's goal. "One of our sayings this year is, 'Win the last game.' That's what we're going to try to do." 

Lakewood Ranch senior Ella Dodge will have another shot at states in 2024 under new coach Taylor Gould.
File photo

The Mustangs started with a 6-2 home win over Palmetto High on Feb. 22 before surviving a scare from Fort Myers High, a regional finals qualifier in Class 5A a season ago, on Feb. 23. Lakewood Ranch trailed the Green Wave 2-0 at home in the bottom of the fourth before ripping off five-straight runs and eventually winning 5-3. The team followed up that win with a 6-0 home win over Tampa Catholic on Feb. 25. 

The offensive performances, while strong enough to win games, have not matched last year's early numbers. The 2022 team scored 39 runs through its first three games, while the 2023 team has 17.

The younger players will get better as they get more experience, Todd Lee said, though some have already made a solid impression.

Sophomore infielder Olivia Shephard hit the team's first home run of the season — and her first varsity home run — against Palmetto, and later doubled home another run. 

"She's still figuring out how good she can be," Lee said of Shephard. "We saw a flash of it today. It's great to see her come out fast." 

Lakewood Ranch sophomore Olivia Shephard (17) is greeted at home plate by her teammates after hitting her first varsity home run.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

Lee, who worked with Goelz for approximately three years in both high school and travel softball, is attempting to keep things as similar to how Goelz ran things as possible. That mostly means not letting up.

It was the little details that helped the Mustangs win their titles, Lee said, so the team will continue to hammer those details in practice. Besides fundamentals, other details include making sure the players clean out the dugout, put away equipment and coordinate different themed outfits for road games. 

It also means the team's post-game chat remains the same lengthy conversation, with Lee and assistant coaches Paulo Reis and Craig Toler — key holdovers from Goelz' staff — going over many individual plays from the game and noting what was done well and what could be improved.

Then the players get to share thoughts and praise. By the time Lakewood Ranch wrapped up its huddle after the Palmetto win, the Tigers and their fans had long left. 

"We're in first-game form right now," Lee said. "Is that going to be the same as 'last game of the season' form? Probably not. There's things to work on. It can get better." 

The team's younger players will get to learn from McLellan, a University of Florida signee, who has started the season with as hot a bat as ever. The leadoff hitter has reached base in nine of 12 plate appearances and has two doubles and a triple. But if the rest of the offense takes a while to get its footing, reigning Class 7A Player of the Year Ella Dodge, a junior pitcher, has the ability to win games with her right arm. Dodge set a program record with 25 wins in 2022 while holding a 1.02 ERA. 

"People think because we have these changes that they can take us down," McLellan said. "Every team is going to bring its A-game. They'll be even more more motivated this time since we've won two in a row now. We need to make sure we bring our A-game back." 



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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