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The top 10 moments of the 2023-2024 East County high school sports year

The Thunder football team beat LPCA 33-14 on Nov. 10 to win the SSAA Class 4A championship.
The Thunder football team beat LPCA 33-14 on Nov. 10 to win the SSAA Class 4A championship.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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It was typically successful year for high school sports in the East County area. 

Two programs won championships, and four other programs or individuals earned second-place finishes in their respective sports. Others still showed off talent that could lead to them joining those first- and second-place finishers in future years. 

Here are the top 10 moments from the 2023-2024 high school sports year: 

1. ODA football wins SSAA Class 4A title

The Out-of-Door Academy’s football program finished its turnaround with a championship. 

After two winless regular seasons in 2020 and 2021, changes were made in 2022 when Head Coach Rob Hollway guided ODA through an 8-0 regular season in his first year with the Thunder. ODA lost 21-0 to Saint Stephen’s Episcopal in the second round of the Sunshine State Athletic Association playoffs that season, but the year was a success. 

Due in part to injuries to key players like sophomore running back Allen Clark, ODA’s 2023 regular season (3-5) was not as smooth as 2022. The postseason was a different story. The Thunder got healthy, and ODA did not waste the opportunity, winning three playoff games to capture the SSAA Class 4A championship. 

In the title game against Lighthouse Private Christian Academy (4-6) on Nov. 10, Clark had 31 carries for 205 yards and three touchdowns in a 33-14 win. The Thunder sacked LPCA sophomore quarterback Brayden Jackson six times, three of which came via senior Robert Crisci. 

In honor of the win, Hollway said, the team has since ordered championship rings with "It's how you finish that counts" engraved on the inside. 

He and his players are not satisfied with one ring, either. Hollway has big hopes for the future of the Thunder.

"I'm excited to defend the championship," Hollway said. "I want to turn this into a program that the community and our school is proud of, where we compete and provide a positive experience and also continue to help kids get to college." 

2. East County players help Parrish Community softball win state title

The Parrish Community High’s run to a second-straight state title in FHSAA Class 5A had a distinct East County flavor. 

Seniors Alex Call and Julia Girk, juniors Hannah Lewis and Carsyn Kull and freshmen Alysa Jones and Sophia Thomas all live south of the Manatee River. The East County contingent had a large impact on the Bulls’ success, particularly in the state championship game against Gainesville High. 

The Parrish Community High softball team (20-8) celebrates a FHSAA Class 5A title game win, 3-2 over Gainesville High (24-5), on May 24. It is the team's second-straight state title and was aided by six East County players.
Courtesy image

Parrish (20-8) was down 2-0 to the Hurricanes (24-5) in the sixth inning before the team got RBI hits from senior Ella Romano and Lewis to tie the game. In the eighth, it was again Romano, who hit a walk-off double that scored Kull. 

In its comeback, the team exemplified its season motto: “Warrior mindset.” Kull said players would raise their fists in the dugout during games, shouting "We ride at dawn" as a battle cry. It made them feel invincible. 

In the postseason, they were. 

3. Mustangs state runnerup in boys golf

For the second year in a row, the Lakewood Ranch High boys golf team had a high finish in the state tournament. 

At Mission Inn Resort and Spa in Howey-in-the-Hills on Nov. 10-11, Lakewood Ranch shot a combined 299 in day two of the Class 3A state tournament — eight shots better than it did on day one — and finished with a 606 total, good for a second-place finish behind state champion Fleming Island High (583).

Individually, junior Parker Severs finished tied for second (70-73—143) and junior Henry Burbee finished tied for fourth (77-68—145). Sophomore Max Colby Bendixen (78-79—157), sophomore Josh Orgen (83-79—162) and junior Luke Wilson (82-83—165) rounded out the Mustangs' lineup. 

The team's second-place finish at the state tournament is its best since it won the state championship in 2013. It finished fifth in 2022. 

4. Abigail Hite finishes second at state swim meet

Lakewood Ranch-area senior girls swimmer Abigail Hite finished her swimming career with a strong performance. 

Hite — who attended Bradenton’s Southeast High for its International Baccalaureate academic program, in the hopes of becoming an engineer — finished second in the 100-yard breaststroke (1:04.90) at the FHSAA Class 3A state meet, held Nov. 11 at Florida Aquatics Swimming and Training in Ocala. She was 0.68 seconds behind gold medal winner Annabelle MacAdams of Ponte Vedra High.

Southeast High senior Abigail Hite took a silver medal in the girls 100 yard breaststroke (1:04.90) at the FHSAA Class 3A state meet, held Nov. 11 at Florida Aquatics Swimming and Training in Ocala.
Photo by Isabella Parker

Hite also finished fifth in the 100-yard freestyle (52.25 seconds). 

It was the culmination of Hite’s hard work to lower her times, including occasional cross-training sessions, like running, to work on different muscles. Hite said she likes to compete in triathlons in the summer as a different type of challenge. 

At the state meet, the challenges she set for herself paid off. 

5. Braden River wrestler second at state tournament

Braden River High senior boys wrestler Gage Wiggins wanted to end his career with gold.

Silver was not his desired prize, but it was not a bad consolation. 

Wiggins (60-2) romped his way through the 165-pound division of the FHSAA Class 2A championship tournament, held March 1-2 at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, in the state semifinals, Wiggins crushed North Fort Myers High's Julian Gonzales (43-6) with a 12-0 major decision. The win guaranteed Wiggins a place on the medal stand. 

In the state finals, Wiggins faced Tampa Jesuit senior Brandon Cody, with whom he had split two previous matches. Cody got the better of Wiggins in the finals, winning 4-3 in overtime. 

6. Braden River flag football reaches state semifinals

The Braden River High flag football program has been the sport’s dominant force in Manatee County since the program’s inception in 2020. 

In 2024, the Pirates started to spread that domination across the state.After a 12-1 regular season, Braden River went on its deepest postseason run to date, culminating in the biggest win in program history.

Braden River High senior quarterback Cydnee Brooks sprints down the field against Dunedin High. The Pirates beat Dunedin 50-0 on Feb. 29 and would eventually reach the state semifinals before a loss to Robinson High.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

The Pirates reached the FHSAA Class 1A state semifinals via a 32-7 road win over Somerset Academy in the regional finals on May 3. Senior quarterback Cydnee Brooks completed 16 of 22 passes for 146 yards and four touchdowns, while junior linebacker Madison Epperson had five sacks. 

The team’s season ended with a 20-0 road loss to eventual state champion Robinson High in the state semifinals on May 10, but the season was another step forward in the program’s development. 

7. Parrish Community football reaches first postseason 

After the Parrish Community High football team's 43-6 win over George Jenkins High on Nov. 3 in its regular season finale, the Bulls players celebrated a first. 

They had just locked up a FHSAA Class 3S playoff berth — the first in the program’s four-year history. 

In 2023, Parrish Community (7-3) matched the program's win total from its first three varsity seasons combined, in which the team went 7-16. To reach the playoffs, the Bulls leaned on a group of players from the East County area, including senior quarterback Jackson Volz, senior tight end Lane Tomlinson, senior offensive lineman Carter Dietz, senior offensive lineman Jimie Roden, senior linebacker Holten Graham, senior defensive end Dustin Springfield, junior defensive end Ashton Springfield, junior linebacker Sean Crowley and junior cornerback Bryson Bender.

Parrish’s season came to an end Nov. 10 with a 42-0 loss to Naples High in the first round of the playoffs But Volz said reaching the playoffs at all, after building to be a winner, should put the area on notice that this is a program on the rise. 

8. Lakewood Ranch boys lacrosse makes deepest postseason run

With a new head coach and a new attitude, the Lakewood Ranch High boys lacrosse team showed that the program can be a postseason threat. 

The Mustangs went 14-6 and reached the regional semifinals in FHSAA Class 2A for the first time in program history. They did it with a 14-8 win over Venice High (11-6) in the regional quarterfinals on April 27, in a game held at Premier Sports Campus in front of a raucous crowd. 

Lakewood Ranch senior Lucas Anthony lets out a scream after scoring a goal against Venice High on April 27. Anthony had eight goals in the regional quarterfinal win against the Indians.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

The game was taken over by Lakewood Ranch senior Lucas Anthony, who scored eight goals against the Indians.First-year Head Coach Joe Nelson said the team’s overall offensive talent allowed Anthony to thrive, as teams could not solely focus on him as they had done in the past.

The Mustangs would end their season with a 15-9 loss to Newsome High (15-5) in the regional semifinals.

9. Pirates volleyball wins third-straight district title

In 2023, the Braden River High volleyball team made it three-for-three.

For the third year in a row, the Pirates took home their FHSAA Class 5A district crown. After an 18-6 regular season, Braden River beat North Port High 3-0 in the district semifinals on Oct. 17, then defeated North Fort Myers High 3-0 on Oct. 17 to win the district finals.

In the title game, senior Aryanna Spainhower led the Pirates with 11 kills, 16 digs and three serving aces, while senior Ericka Freeman led the team with three blocks.

Braden River would advance to the regional semifinals before losing 3-2 to Gulf Coast High on Oct. 28.

10. Braden River High boys soccer upends Lakewood Ranch High
Braden River High senior Joseph Joumayyed takes a shot on net against Charlotte High. The Pirates finished the season 12-3-1.
Photo by Paige Stuckey

After going 11-4-4 in 2022, the Braden River High boys soccer team continued its ascent toward the top of the local soccer scene in 2023-2024.

The Pirates finished the year 12-3-1, highlighted by a 1-0 home win over local rival Lakewood Ranch High, another typical soccer power, on Dec. 11. It was the Pirates’ first win over Lakewood Ranch since 2015. Braden River’s defense and goaltending were the difference in that game and many others, as the Pirates allowed just 10 goals all season.

Though the Pirates lost 2-0 to Naples High (15-5-1) in the first round of the postseason, their win over Lakewood Ranch was a sign of how far the program has come.



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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