As our attention turns to 2023, the sports calendar is both full and exciting in the Sarasota area.
Such winter sports as basketball and soccer head into their respective postseasons. Spring sports such as baseball and softball will start stretching for a February return. And football? Well, football might be in its offseason, but if those players expect to be competitive, they have to condition year-round.
It feels appropriate, in the new year, to look at our athletes collectively and determine a handful of the top ones to watch over the next 12 months. Though many teams and sports have special talents in Sarasota — one of the reasons the area continues to thrive — a few athletes have a chance for special results this year, either because of how they lead their teams or because of the places at the next level calling their names, or because, frankly, they can do things others cannot. Talent and hard work has led them to exceptional results.
Here are 10 athletes who have positioned themselves for those results in 2023:
1. Charles Lester III, Riverview High football
The Rams cornerback/wide receiver wrapped up his junior season in November and put together another elite campaign. Lester, who is 6-foot-1, did a bit of everything on offense for Riverview, catching 34 passes for 354 yards and four touchdowns and taking 20 carries for 87 yards according to MaxPreps— plus, Lester completed both of his passing attempts for 46 yards and one touchdown.
But as much as Lester contributes on offense, his defense is where the five-star player stands out the most. It is more difficult to paint a picture of a defensive player's success with statistics, especially in the secondary, but Lester did record 18 tackles and snag an interception. Teams didn't challenge him all that much, and for good reason. The cornerback is a tough assignment for any receiver.
Lester, the No. 22 junior in the country according to the 247Sports Composite, announced Jan. 1 that the final five college teams involved in his recruitment will be Florida State, Ohio State, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, in no particular order. Lester has not announced a date for his final decision, but it is common for elite players to announce their choice before their senior seasons begin. It's another reason to keep an eye on Lester as 2023 progresses.
2. Gracie Weyant, Riverview High girls swimming
Weyant, who also swims with the Sarasota Sharks, is one of a handful of Sarasota-area swimmers with designs on national and international success, but she makes the list because of her overall body of work.
Weyant won three gold medals as a junior at the 2022 Florida High School Athletic Association Class 3A state championships, two individual and one relay. She's also a member of the U.S. National Junior Team for the 200 individual medley, the event in which Weyant received a bronze medal at the 2022 Junior Pan Pacific Championships (2:14.36).
On Oct. 23, Weyant announced her verbal commitment to the University of Florida, where in 2024 she expects to join her sister and Olympic silver medalist Emma Weyant. Despite the strong familial connection to success, Gracie Weyant's accomplishments mean she deserves name recognition all on her own.
3. Josiah Booker, Booker High football
The junior wide receiver had a breakout season in 2022 in the Tornadoes' first year under Coach Scottie Littles.
Booker, who is 5-foot-10, caught 58 passes (52.7% of the team's completions) for 957 yards and nine touchdowns, using his speed and shiftiness to get open for long completions. Booker went over 100 receiving yards in six of the team's 11 games. He also had 14 carries for 56 yards. Littles consistently praised Booker as an athlete before the season and said he would do big things; he was correct.
Booker also showed up in the biggest moments. Though the Tornadoes lost their first-round playoff game against Frostproof High 34-31, Booker caught seven passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns.
Colleges were impressed. Booker has received NCAA Division I scholarship offers from Duke and Marshall with more likely on the way as camp season gets closer. Now that Booker has had his breakout season, he — and the team, which went 6-5 in 2022 — could make a leap into another tier entirely in 2023.
4. Helena Hebda, Cardinal Mooney High volleyball
A member of both Cardinal Mooney's indoor and beach volleyball teams, Hebda has become a leader on both.
Hebda, a junior, helped the school's beach team secure a state championship last spring and served as the indoor team's setter last fall, recording 920 assists (10 assists per set), 245 digs and 41 kills. With Hebda setting up her teammates, the Cougars indoor team went 18-10 and reached the Class 3A regional finals (Elite Eight).
With former Gatorade Florida Player of the Year Jordyn Byrd graduating in the spring, the Cougars will need to rely on Hebda's leadership and experience more than ever in 2023.
5. Jaden Judge, Sarasota High football
The Sailors used a three-pronged rushing attack to lead its offense in 2022, and Judge was the prong that did the most damage.
Judge, a junior, had 132 carries for 727 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and five touchdowns for Sarasota while catching 14 passes for 268 yards, which led the team, and two touchdowns. Judge's 995 all-purpose yards also led the team.
Though Judge stands 5-foot-7, he runs with a physical style and does not shy away from contact, often going through the teeth of a defense instead of bouncing to the outside. He's also consistent; despite sharing carries, Judge never had less than 62 rushing yards in a game in 2022.
Sarasota let go of Coach Brody Wiseman in December and is still looking for his replacement as of Jan. 3, so the future of the Sailors offense is uncertain, but Judge and the other running backs should be useful weapons for whoever takes over the program.
6. Kali Barrett, Cardinal Mooney High girls basketball
After a stellar freshman season in which Barrett averaged 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, she's started her sophomore season with the Cougars playing even better.
Through 12 games, the 6-foot-1 Barrett leads Mooney with 16.1 points per game (14th in Class 3A) and is second with 7.1 rebounds per game. Her play has helped the Cougars, who are playing under a new coach in Marlon Williams, to a 9-3 record on their search for a third-straight Final Four appearance.
Barrett's strong play is one reason that goal is achievable.
7. Chariot Johnson, Booker High girls basketball
After making a leap and going on a run to the Final Four in 2021-2022, the Booker girls basketball team is trying to repeat its effort. Chariot Johnson could help the program get there.
Johnson, a 5-foot-9 senior, leads the Tornadoes with 11.6 points per game and and 3.5 steals per game and is tied for the team lead with 5.9 rebounds per game as of Jan. 3. Her 2.6 assists per game is 0.1 less than team leader Jakai Peterson, a junior guard.
If that wasn't enough, she proved her athleticism by playing for the school's volleyball team. Johnson led the Tornadoes in kills (89) and digs (118) during the 2022 season, according to MaxPreps.
Johnson's ability to do a little bit of everything for the Booker girls basketball team has helped the Tornadoes secure a 10-5 record through 15 games. As they playoffs approach, Booker will need Johnson to keep up her strong play.
8. Oliver Boyle, Sarasota High boys basketball
Sarasota first-year coach BJ Ivey has initiated a large-scale turnaround of the Sailors boys basketball program, taking a team that went 5-20 a season ago and leading them to an 11-3 record as of Jan. 3.
Oliver Boyle, a sophomore guard, has been a key part of the turnaround. Boyle leads the team with 13.2 points per game and is efficient about his scoring; he's made 58% of his field goal attempts this season, including 38% of his three-point attempts.
Boyle is third on the team with 4.7 rebounds per game. He also leads the Sailors with 2.4 steals per game, providing value on both ends of the floor.
9. Alec Miller, Sarasota High boys track and field
Miller, the Sailors senior distance runner, has had quite the 12 months.
He finished second (4:13.50) in the Class 4A boys 1,600-meter run at the 2022 FHSAA state championship meet in May as a junior, approximately two seconds behind Hagerty High junior Braden Seymour. Then he finished second at the Class 4A cross country state championships (15:40.3) in November as a senior, approximately five seconds behind Nease High junior Matt Ryan.
With one track and field season left before he graduates, Miller has a chance to build off of those silver medals and finally earn a gold. His experience at state running events could give him a leg up in 2023.
10. Sam Klanot, Riverview High baseball
Klanot turned in a junior season that was the model of consistency.
He pitched in in nine of the team's 27 games, which was just the third-most on the team, but led the Rams with six wins and was not charged with a single loss. The right-hander's 1.58 ERA was the lowest among the team's pitchers with at least five appearances.
Even in the team's 4-3 playoff loss to East Lake High, Klanot pitched five innings of shutout baseball.
Klanot committed to the University of Chicago on Nov. 6. Having him back in the rotation in 2023 should give the Rams a good building block for another playoff run.
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.