Year in review | 2013-14 prep sports brought state champions, historic playoff runs

jlembo@bradenton.comJune 22, 2014 

The 2013-14 prep sports season brought us state champions and historic playoff runs.

A legendary football coach walked away with a victory while a legendary basketball coach earned himself another state title ring.

Bayshore had a banner spring, and Lakewood Ranch's boys golf team had itself another stellar fall, and Southeast's lady hoopsters made the winter pretty special, too.

So here is a look at the prep sports season, and the players and coaches who made it memorable.

Goodbye, legend

Paul Maechtle always detested the spotlight.

Southeast's legendary football coach, the winner of two state championships since taking over the Seminoles in 1981, always preferred the attention go toward his team rather than himself.

So when he decided to finally call it a career - albeit a Hall of Fame career -- Maechtle hoped to keep it under wraps until after the 2013 football season.

"I knew that this would be my last season," Maechtle, 61, said, "but I didn't want to tell anyone because I wanted to focus on team and not have this be a Paul Maechtle thing."

But days before the Noles closed the year against Palmetto, and with rumors swirling, Maechtle made it official: Friday, Nov. 8, would mark his final night on a prep sideline.

Maechtle entered the school district's DROP program in 2009, meaning he couldn't coach or teach for monetary purposes after April of this year. So when he led the Seminoles into John Kiker Memorial Stadium one last time that night in November, it marked the end of an era.

Fittingly, it came against a Palmetto team coached by Dave Marino, who was one of Maechtle's assistants during Southeast's state championship seasons in 1993 and '94.

"I learned many things from Paul, the most important being patience and understanding and working with kids," Marino said. "He has been part of this county for 40 years and it will be different not seeing him on the sidelines next year. He pays great attention to detail and organization and structure. He was always well prepared. This (final game) will be special. This is the 20th anniversary of the first state title that we won."

It wasn't exactly a dream 2013 for Southeast, which entered the season finale saddled with a 2-7 record and out of the playoff race. But determined to send their coach out a winner and cheered on by a number of Maechtle's former players standing on the sideline, the Seminoles defeated Palmetto 34-26 for the 281st and final win of Maechtle's career.

Running back Courtney Allen rushed for 193 yards in his final game at Southeast to give him 3,838 for his career, second all-tme in Manatee County history.

"The whole thing's bittersweet - when you come out and play like this, you want to keep it going," said Maechtle. "But I need a break. Those hills started getting high to climb in 1997, and I think I've climbed up enough of them."

Thrice is nice

Lakewood Ranch won its third straight boys golf state championship.

No catchy slogans. No punny headlines.

That says it all - three straight championships, the first boys golf team to do it from a Florida public school.

The Mustangs didn't make things too dramatic, carding a 593 to beat Lithia Newsome by 15 strokes during the final day of the Class 3A finals at Mission Inn Golf & Resort's El Campeon Course in Howey-in-the-Hills.

"I see this as probably our best team top-to-bottom, just because the front three are under par or at par every time," said Lakewood Ranch coach Dave Frantz, who stepped down shortly after the season ended.

The Mustangs were paced by two Division-I bound seniors, Ramsey Touchberry (University of Florida) and Danny Walker (University of Virginia), and junior Luke Miller.

Walker fired a 2-below 70 during the tournament's final day and Miller had a 71, helping Ranch achieve its goal of breaking 600 at state.

"It's pretty special," Miller said. "To be on a team that I played for on two years that won two state championships … I don't know if there's any team in the nation that wins three in a row and always has a chance to compete."

Touchberry and Walker were on board for all three titles and the program's runner-up finish in 2010.

"There's nothing else that can be done, so we're pretty excited about it," Walker said.

Other fall happenings

• Manatee's football team wrapped its third perfect regular season in four years before falling to Fort Pierce Central in the Class 8A-Region 2 semifinals. Twelve Hurricanes signed letters-of-intent to play in college, a program record. Cardinal Mooney and Palmetto joined Manatee in the playoffs.

• Lakewood Ranch's Eric Erlenmyer (100-yard backstroke) and Saint Stephen's Ellie Berdusco (500 freestyle) took home silver medals from the state swim meet.

• Manatee's volleyball team won the Class 8A-District 8 title by beating top-seeded Palm Harbor University 3-2 in the championship match.

• Bayshore's Canaan Meester-Kitterman took first in the Class 2A-District 10 meet and won the Tri-County and IMG inviationals en route to the state meet, where he finished fifth. Cardinal Mooney's Grace Casagrande also won her district and the Tri-County meet before placing fifth in the Class 1A meet.

• Manatee baseball coach Dwayne Strong, under investigation by the district for alleged financial improprieties, resigned. The Florida High School Athletic Association wound up fining Manatee over $13,000 for the baseball team's violations, a number that would have surpassed $330,000 had the school not self-reported the violations. District superintendent Rick Mills recommended former principal Robert Gagnon and football coach and former athletic director Joe Kinnan be suspended 10 days each for their role in the program's violations. Kinnan, who resigned as the school's athletic director in December, plans on appealing the decision. He has been on medical leave since December and did not coach during the spring.

Back on top

After his players wrapped their freshmen season, Southeast girls basketball coach John Harder took them to The Lakeland Center, home to the state basketball final four, so they could soak in the atmosphere.

That was it for the field trip: If the Seminoles were going to get back to the The Lakeland Center, they would have to make it as participants rather than spectators.

"I wanted them hungry," Harder said.

Like so many of the decisions Harder has made in 30 seasons at Southeast, this one worked. The Seminoles reached the Class 5A state semifinals and rolled to the program's fourth state championship, third under Harder, with a decisive 52-35 victory over Fort Walton Beach Choctawhatchee in the championship game. It was quite a capper for Southeast, who went 30-1. The Noles lost to Sarasota, a Class 7A state semifinalist, Nov. 22 and never lost again.

For the first time since 1990, the Seminoles were state champions. And it followed back-to-back disappointing seasons - Southeast's string of 12 straight district tiles was snapped in 2011 and the program didn't qualify for the regional tournament in 2012.

"This has been such a long, long, long journey," said DeAngela Mathis, who closed her career at Southeast with 15 points, three rebounds and two assists in the championship game. "Plenty of things have gone wrong, plenty of things have gone right. But you've got to come together. This is the big league. This is something that's been a goal we've set for ourselves since freshman year, since we all got here. We've all been playing the same time, been around each other for the same time, been around this man for the same time, there have been some ups and downs, but this is work at its best.

"This is an unbelievable feeling."

Southeast was unbelievable in Lakeland, winning semifinal and final games by a combined 42 points, eschewing drama for dominance to the delight of the large contingent of fans who made the trip from Bradenton.

"They just played so hard and they just played so well," Harder said. "They saved their best games for the biggest stages, for the biggest of games."

It was the final game for Mathis, Bevin Mays, Janelle Gould and finals MVP Keshawna Robinson, four seniors who had been together for four years.

"I'm still trying to get it through my head that we actually won it, we actually did it," said Gould, who had 10 steals over the two games and carried the championship trophy into The Lakeland Center's interview room. "I'm just happy to be with this team. After all we've been through, I love them."

As was his custom in the previous semifinal appearances, Harder wore an orange and blue plaid jacket, a gift from his father-in-law in 1984. It was the first time Harder wore it since 2003, and it was well worth the wait.

"It feels pretty good for him to bring it back out of the closet," Mathis said. "It's been up for many years. And I'm glad to be on the team to bring it back out."

Title run for two

Manatee County wrestling was in a rut, spawning just two state medalists in the last two years.

This year, the locals came roaring back.

The county's six wrestling programs teamed to send 20 wrestlers to the state tournament at The Lakeland Center and saw two qualifiers reach the finals.

Both made a little history along the way.

Hunter Reed became the first Lakewood Ranch wrestler to make a title match when he qualified in Class 2A at 103 pounds. And Manatee's Jesse Fulk set the program's single-season wins record en route to being a state finalist in Class 3A at 160 pounds.

Both fell short but walked away pleased with what they accomplished.

"I'm pretty OK with it. Making second is still great for me," said Reed, pinned in the first period by Brandon's Frankie Bruno, who finished 51-0.

Reed, a freshman, won 48 matches this year while his dad, Kraig, served as an assistant coach.

"I was thinking of at the beginning of the year that I'd try to make it to state," Hunter said, "and see what happens then."

After disappointing finishes during his freshman and sophomore seasons, Fulk's junior year didn't end until he lost to Kissimmee Osceola's Fox Baldwin in the finals. Fulk went 59-4 this year and 0-3 against Baldwin, considered one of the best wrestlers in the nation.

"I'm definitely improving," Fulk said. "But I'm looking to next year to get on top."

It was a breakthrough year for Fulk, who didn't make state as a freshman and didn't medal at state last year.

"Instead of going into every tournament nervous, I went into it (thinking), 'What's the worst that can happen?,'" he said. "If I go out there and wrestle my hardest…"

Joining Fulk and Reed on the medal stand were Manatee's Tyrek Hoyte, Lakewood Ranch's Dylan Cameron, Palmetto's Anthony Viscomi and Bayshore's Petro Marin.

Viscomi became the first medalist for Palmetto, which began wrestling during the 2005-06 season.

Other winter happenings

• Palmetto's boys basketball team reached the regional finals for the second time in three years, losing 61-57 to Melbourne in the Class 7A-Region 3 championship game.

• Lakewood Ranch's girls and Saint Stephen's boys reached the state soccer semifinals. The Mustangs were qualifiers in Class 7A and the Falcons in Class 1A.

• Despite losing 17 seniors from the year before, Manatee's cheerleading team won its second straight state title in the extra-large division of Class 2A. The Hurricanes scored an 86.15 from the judges to defeat runner-up Orlando Boone (80.95).

The best Bruins yet

As they headed into the 2014 season, the girls who make up Bayshore's softball team had to deal with an unfamiliar challenge:

Pressure.

The Bruins reached the Class 5A-Region 3 final in 2013 for the first time in program history, and with nearly the entire team returning, everyone was expecting this year's edition to repeat and perhaps surpass last year's historic run.

It did:The Bruins defeated Wauchula Hardee to win the Region 3 championship and clinch the program's first state final four appearance.

"This year, it was pressure, and that's what I told them at the beginning of the season," coach Frank Luther said. "I said, 'All we did last year was we won pressure. We added pressure. People are going expect us to do it this year.' They handled it."

Bayshore rolled to a 14-0 start before winning the District 10 title, the team's first championship since 2005. The Bruins didn't slow once the regional playoffs began, defeating Tampa Middleton, St. Petersburg Lakewood and Hardee by a combined score of 24-1. Sophomores JoJo Muldoon, LaShara James and Marina Clark, along with Kristin Staley, the lone senior in the starting lineup, powered the offense. Freshman Miriam Schmoll handled the pitching, striking out 211 in 132 2/3 innings while posting a 16-4 record and 1.21 ERA.

Next stop was the final four in Vero Beach, where Bayshore lost 2-1 to Belleview in a semifinal. The Bruins didn't have a baserunner until Muldoon singled with two out in the seventh. But Clark followed with an RBI double, and Bayshore got the tying run to third before Belleview recorded the final out.

"A lot of teams could have gave up, put their heads down, said 'We're done,'" Luther said. "But they fought until the last inning, they fought until the last out, and that's what makes me the most proud."

This may not be the end of Bayshore's run. Aside from Staley, who will play at Flagler next year on a softball scholarship, all the girls in the starting lineup against Belleview should return next year.

"Next year, we're going to go in with the mentality that this didn't happen," Schmoll said. "We can't look in the past, we can't look in the future because we're going to lose absolute control of what's going on in the present. Next year, we're just going to take it pitch by pitch, inning by inning, and try and just get Ws on the board."

They are the champions

While no area teams won state titles during the spring, a number of individuals walked away from their events with a gold medal -- or two -- in tow.

The most impressive was Southeast's Gage Takacs, who won his second straight Class 1A state weightlifting title. Takacs won this year's title at 219 pounds and did it about two months after a knee injury ended his wrestling season during the regional tournament.

"It feels great," said Takacs, who finished with a total lift of 760 pounds. "Not many people can say they're a two-time state champ."

Talia Falco could, though her two state titles came on the same day. The Lakewood Ranch junior won two events at the Class 3A state track meet, claiming gold in the triple jump (38 feet, 2 inches) and high jump (5-4).

"I didn't do any track until my freshman year, so I am not sure how all this happened. I guess it just comes naturally," said Falco, also a stand-out soccer player. "Strength is important in the triple jump because the pounding really wears down the legs. I think the high jump is more about technique. You don't have to be able to jump high if your technique is good."

Maria Ross won multiple titles, too. The Out-of-Door Academy tennis star won the Class 1A overall and individual singles title and paired with MaryAnn Rompf to win the overall and individual doubles championship, too.

"I got to do it for my school," said Ross, an accomplished player on the junior circuit. "I liked representing my school and doing it for them."

Not to be undone was Grace Casagrande, Cardinal Mooney's tireless distance runner. In the final event of her prep career, Casagrande won the Class 1A state championship by finishing the 3,200-meter run in 11 minutes, 1 second.

Other spring happenings

• Bayshore and Cardinal Mooney won baseball district championships, while Lakewood Ranch and Saint Stephen's did the same in softball. The Mustangs reached a regional final for the third straight year.

• Bayshore's Joy Norman took third in the high jump at the Class 2A meet with a height of 5 feet, 4 inches.

• Canaan Meester-Kitterman, one of the most prolific runners in Manatee County history, ended his career at Bayshore by taking third in the 1,600 (4:26) and eighth in the 3,200 (9:42, a personal best in that event).

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