The Bradenton-area prep golf scene still belongs to the Lakewood Ranch boys team, even if the Mustangs aren't as deep as the past two seasons.
Those last two campaigns netted the program back-to-back Class 2A state championships. This year, the Florida High School Athletic Association expanded golf to three classifications, and Ranch has moved up to 3A, the largest.
Two members from last year's team chose not to return this season. Spencer Schultz and Barry McDonnell opted to play their own individual tournament schedule, rather than coming back to the Mustangs, head coach Dave Frantz said.
"I can't deny that is certainly going to hurt our depth," Frantz said.
But the Mustangs are not short on outstanding players. They still have University of Florida commit Ramsey Touchberry and University of Virginia commit Danny Walker. Walker has won a state title in all three of his previous prep seasons: He won the 2A individual title as a freshman.
The senior stars are joined by junior Luke Miller, who transferred in last fall from out of state, and new transfer from Omaha, Neb., Ben Parisi, who carded a 71 in his first round at Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club.
Freshman Louis DelFabro and sophomore brothers Charlie and Kelly Sun
round out the Mustangs' lineup.
The goal for Ranch isn't beating local competition. It's to test its mettle against the rest of the state, and Frantz has his team heading all over the place this season to prime them for a deep postseason run in an attempt to secure the Mustangs' third consecutive state championship.
The Mustangs are in a district with Manatee and Braden River and Sarasota County squads.
Down in Class 1A, four area teams are competing in the same district. The top team figures to be Saint Stephen's, while the best player in the area heading into the high school season might just be Bradenton Christian's Philip Knowles.
"We're young and have no seniors this year," Panthers head coach Joel Van Ryn said. "But Philip, obviously as a junior, is a great player. He didn't just have a good season last year, but had a wonderful summer. So he's coming in hot."
Knowles won the Sam Parks Junior Invitational at Belleair Country Club last weekend with a 4-under-par 138 total for the two-day tournament.
Jordan Miller graduated and headed to Florida Gulf Coast University, but his younger brother, Landry, is a sophomore and the Panthers' No. 2 player. Eighth-grader Jack Knowles and sophomores Trent Bell and Duncan Sikkema round out the BCS lineup.
Out-of-Door Academy and Cardinal Mooney will battle BCS and Saint Stephen's. Other district competitors include teams from Sarasota, Cape Coral, Port Charlotte, North Port and Moore Haven.
ODA and Mooney have already played each other once, with the Thunder winning easily.
However, second-year Cougars head coach Chris Kennedy, a mini-tour professional, said his team is still rebuilding, and a realistic goal would be to make it to regionals.
The Cougars have a senior transfer from Naples in Ryan Anderson, and junior Jake LaMore qualified for the regional tourney last season as an individual.
"I think we'll be a little bit more competitive this year," Kennedy said. "We've got a pretty fun group of guys that are all willing to work hard."
Ellenton's Ryan Wolfe is no longer at Southeast, having graduated and headed for Johnson & Wales in Miami.
The Seminoles compete alongside Bayshore and Palmetto as well as teams from Arcadia, Sarasota and Wauchula in district play at the Class 2A level.
The district setup is the same for girls golf, although Bradenton Christian does not have any players this fall.
Ranch freshman Theresa Morrisey and sophomore Hailey Todoroff lead Ranch, while Manatee should contend with Gianna Tomeo, a two-time state tournament participant, at the top of the lineup.