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Prose and Kohn

New Lakewood Ranch Prep baseball program starts with the small details

For the meantime, the pitch is for the players to learn responsibility to their teammates.

Lakewood Ranch Prep finished its first baseball season 4-10, but Head Coach Alex McDuffie said the Eagles learned a lot about what it takes to be a team.
Lakewood Ranch Prep finished its first baseball season 4-10, but Head Coach Alex McDuffie said the Eagles learned a lot about what it takes to be a team.
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When members of the Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy baseball program were late to practice this season, there were consequences. 

Not just for the late players, but for the whole team.

For every person who arrived late, Head Coach Alex McDuffie said, the team was required to do 50 push-ups. It is a discipline technique McDuffie learned in the Army Reserves, where he spent 12 years before retiring as a captain. The Eagles might not have been the most talented team in 2024, but McDuffie made sure his players paid attention to the little details, like being on time, or keeping the dugout clean, as those are the things that make the difference in close games.

Having discipline and accountability are foundational attributes, ones that the Eagles can use in future seasons as they look to become competitive. 

The 2024 season was Lakewood Ranch Prep baseball's first. The school tried to put together a team in 2023, McDuffie said, but it did not draw enough interest to fill out a roster. That is not a surprise as the school, which opened in 2022, only had ninth graders. This season, with ninth and 10th graders, the team was able to fill out its roster with 16 players. Many of the players had little to no baseball experience.

By itself, the lack of experience was not a problem, McDuffie said. He expected that when he agreed to run the program. McDuffie, known to players as "Coach Mac," played college baseball at Middle Tennessee State University and previously coached at Middle Tennessee Christian School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He was drawn to Lakewood Ranch Prep because of the challenge of the job, he said. 

"That was part of the excitement for me, going from the ground level," McDuffie said. "We're building the foundation of the future program. I knew it would be more work than going to an existing program."

What McDuffie and his coaching staff had to figure out, however, was how to balance teaching his inexperienced players the game's fundamentals while keeping the experienced players engaged. The coaches decided on a group system at team practices, with McDuffie coaching the experienced group and assistant coaches Jeff O'Leary and Jared Autrey teaching the inexperienced group. 

Experience was not the only challenge the Eagles faced in their first year. Lakewood Ranch Prep does not have a baseball field on campus, so the team had to practice on the fields at Heritage Harbour Park, splitting time with the school's middle school team. It is also where the Eagles played home games. Not having an on-campus field required the arranging of rides for everyone after school, McDuffie said. The program used an app called TeamSnap to communicate with parents and arrange transportation. McDuffie said the parents were good about carpooling, which took some stress out of the equation. 

The Eagles' season was the first of three probational seasons it will play in the Florida High School Athletic Association, a requirement for new programs. During this time, the Eagles can play other FHSAA schools, but cannot compete for district, regional or state titles. As a result, the program can take its time working its way to being competitive. This season, Lakewood Ranch Prep played 14 games against a mix of junior varsity and varsity programs. McDuffie said he scheduled things that way so the players could face some similar-level foes as well as be challenged by the varsity teams. 

The Eagles went 4-10 against that schedule, with the first win in program history being a 10-8 win over the Sarasota Military Academy junior varsity on Feb. 13. 

The 2024 Eagles season was about setting a foundation for the program as a whole, and it was also an opportunity for individual players to make an impression. Some did, two in particular: sophomores Matthew O'Leary and Leif Edoff. O'Leary was the team's best hitter, leading the Eagles with a .433 batting average with eight RBIs. Edoff was the team's top pitcher, holding a 2.46 ERA over 31.1 innings. 

The program has a long ways to go. In particular, the Eagles struggled with their defense — not unexpected for players new to the game. Of the 158 runs allowed by the team, 106 were unearned. But McDuffie said he saw improvement in that regard as the season progressed, especially in the outfield. McDuffie said his center fielders learned to communicate with the left and right fielders and take command, going after any catchable fly balls in their vicinity. 

After the team's penultimate game of the year, a 15-0 road loss to Bradenton Christian School's varsity team, McDuffie gathered his team in a huddle in left field. It is something he does every game, he said, going over specific plays from the game and giving players a chance to communicate what went right or wrong. After this particular game, McDuffie asked his players what they had learned about themselves over the course of the year. 

Unanimously, McDuffie said, his players responded that they learned how to be function as a team. They know the expectations of practice, they know each other as teammates, and they know what it takes to win games against good competition. The team didn't get as many wins as the players wished, but the things they learned this year will lead to wins in 2025 and beyond. 

"For a first-year program, that stood out to me and made me happy," McDuffie said. "I saw them enjoying the game. They were (mentally) in it from start to finish. They knew that the first year would have bumps in the road. It made me proud to see the kids being that mature." 

Now that the foundation is laid, the Eagles can focus on what all programs ultimately want: getting a whole lot of wins, and having a whole lot of fun doing it. 



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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