Dynasties are rare, especially in high school sports.
One East County program found out this spring that it is incredibly difficult to build upon a dynasty, while another, on the verge of stamping its run as a dynasty, couldn't quite reach that level.
The Lakewood Ranch High softball program had been 122-10 through five seasons with Head Coach T.J. Goelz running the program. The Mustangs won state championships in 2021 and 2022 and likely would have won a third in 2020 if not for COVID-19 cancelling the season after the team started 8-0.
However, Goelz left the program after the 2022 title, key players graduated and things just weren't the same.
Meanwhile, the very successful The Out-of-Door Academy baseball program, which won a state championship in 2021 and reached the state semifinals in 2022, couldn't keep its domination flowing.
In 2023, both programs saw their seasons end on the road in the regional quarterfinals. Not because of any fluke plays, either. They were just beaten.
The Mustangs, who lost 7-4 to Steinbrenner High, finished the season 16-11 with more losses than the previous five seasons combined. ODA, which finished 20-8, lost 3-0 to Canterbury High.
For the Mustangs, things never came together the way first-year Head Coach Todd Lee wanted them to work. There was always something off, he said, as if plugging one hole caused another to open. Yet even against Steinbrenner, when reigning Class 7A Player of the Year Ella Dodge was battling a stomach illness and didn't pitch her best, the Mustangs had a shot to win.
In the seventh inning down 7-3, Lakewood Ranch had the bases loaded for senior Amanda Lee, who hit a rocket to the Steinbrenner outfield fence. It was inches from leaving the park for a game-tying grand slam, but instead was run down and caught by the Steinbrenner outfielder. It turned into a relatively meaningless sacrifice fly and the game would end one batter later.
It was a microcosm of the team's season, Todd Lee said, so close, but so far.
"We fought that all year," Todd Lee said. "We couldn't get over that hump."
If the Mustangs are to get back to being a state championship contender, they'll have to do it without some very special seniors who will graduate. Offensive stars Amanda Lee, Addyson Bruneman and Cassidy McLellan, a University of Florida signee who had been an All-American caliber players since she arrived as a freshman, all will graduate.
The Mustangs will have returnees like Dodge and junior outfielder Grace Shaw-Rockey, who hit .345 this season, and Todd Lee said the team will have a very talented freshman class in 2024.
But in many ways, the team that takes the field to start 2024 will be the beginning of a new era in Mustangs softball, one almost completely separated from the teams Goelz led to back-to-back titles. That isn't a positive or negative thing, merely a fact of how these things go.
While Lakewood Ranch's troubles were somewhat foretold by its regular season, ODA's regular season looked just as strong as in past years. The Thunder won 11 of its last 13 games. But ODA ran into a stiff challenge against senior Canterbury pitcher Austin Schrowe, who holds a 0.77 ERA in 2023. ODA Head Coach Mike Matthews said he liked many of the at-bats his players had against Schrowe, but the hardest hit balls were right at the fielders.
On the mound, ODA sophomore Carter Malartsik (1.71 ERA for the season) only made one mistake to Canterbury all game, but it was a costly one, serving up a three-run homer to University of Miami commit Evan Taveras.
Matthews said the loss stung because of the expectations the program has for itself.
"We made back-to-back Final Fours," Matthews said. "We have a ridiculously high standard. We feel disappointed. But I'm also proud of my team. We showed a lot of growth over the course of the year, off the field as well, in regards to character and leadership."
Like the Mustangs, the Thunder will lose the biggest power bat in its lineup, as senior Jack Hobson will graduate and play for the University of South Carolina-Aiken. Starting pitcher Luke Geske (1.39 ERA) will also graduate, alongside others. But ODA will keep three-quarters of its infield, as juniors Ryan Mohrmann, Nolan Naese and Brandon Beasley will all return. Matthews said he hopes that trio, alongside Malartsik's growth on the mound, will give the Thunder a good base in 2024.
Is it possible that both programs regain their 2021 and 2022 postseason forms next spring? Sure.
But if they don't, that's how it goes, and that's OK. These are high school kids after all, and while they're in this to win, they also hope to learn and grow and make bonds that last. Those things can, and do, still happen, whether in the midst of a dynasty, or while trying to build one.
Todd Lee summed up those feelings when talking about his Mustangs.
"The seniors, and even some of the juniors, they have been together five or six years if you include travel ball," Lee said. "This is the end of the road for them. Coming to the end like this, and being such a tight group, I think it hit them hard. They spend almost all their time together, and they now understand that they're not going to be together much more."
Both programs will return in 2024, different than before, but back all the same, and the cycle of success may swing upward again for them.
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.