The past 12 months in Manatee County have made up a year of champions. Lakewood Ranch High School’s girls track and field team won a state title, as did two of its individuals. Manatee High School had a relay team repeat as a state champion. Two Bayshore High School swimmers won individual state championships. Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School won its first football state championship of any kind. A handful of other programs either contended for state titles this past year or set themselves up for the opportunity during the next few months.
The championship spirit was contagious even beyond the prep sphere. The Bradenton Marauders won their first Florida State League title. Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea, a figure skating team that trains out of Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, won a national championship. Manatee and Sarasota counties became a hub for Olympic training. Next year, Nathan Benderson Park will host a rowing world championship event.
The area’s successes ran literally through the entire calendar. Former Palmetto High School quarterback Jack Allison spent the first days of the year competing in an All-American game and a slew of former stars from the county are finishing it by playing in some of the country’s highest-profile bowl games. Let’s relive the year that was.
Jack Allison: All-American
Even though Jack Allison missed out on the playoffs during his final football season with Palmetto, he still finished his season in Orlando. The quarterback opened 2016 as a backup in the Under Armour All-America Game and delivered the game’s best passing performance. Allison threw for a game-high 83 yards, including a highlight-reel touchdown to current Miami teammate Dionte Mullins.
Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex delivers a national title
Tarah Kayne and Daniel O’Shea, a pair of figure skaters who train at Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, had their international breakthrough in 2016. After winning at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Kayne and O’Shea qualified for the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, and as the American representatives they became the faces of the event. Kayne and O’Shea finished 13th in the world and now have their sights set on qualifying for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Bradenton Christian flirts with history
As halftime drew near at the Class 2A championship game in Lakeland, Bradenton Christian’s boys basketball team was within striking distance of winning its first state title. But the talent disparity eventually did manifest and Boca Raton Grandview Prep denied the Panthers’ their first championship with an 87-63 win at The Lakeland Center. The 2015-16 season was still BCS’ best in 20 years, in terms of victory, and Bradenton Christian pieced its run together on the backs of three players who had been classmates since elementary school.
Manatee’s relay repeats in Bradenton
Almost everyone left Manatee’s Class 4A-champion 400-meter relay team after the 2015 season. Kavious Price’s return as the anchor leg, though, was enough to will the Hurricanes to another championship — and this time they got to do it in Bradenton. The Canes ran a 41.70 at IMG Academy Field to win their second straight title. It was also the key resume builder for Price as he took home All-Area Player of the Year honors.
Lakewood Ranch turns in a dominant 2016
Lakewood Ranch’s incredible calendar year really began during the end of basketball season. The Mustangs’ girls reached the Class 7A championship — with All-Area Player of the Year LaDazhia Williams — and their boys made it to the Class 7A-Region 3 final. Three months later, Sophia Falco and Reide Ryans both won Class 4A track and field titles to help the team win a 4A title — and Falco was named All-Area Player of the Year.
Lakewood Ranch’s success has continued into the 2016-17 school year. The Mustangs’ boys cross country team was the Class 4A runner-up. Their boys soccer team possesses a national Top 25 ranking. Their boys basketball team has a Top 10 ranking in Florida. Their girls basketball team is No. 2 in Class 7A. Even beyond Manatee County, Lakewood Ranch is poised to succeed. The Mustangs had 10 players sign National Letters of Intent with Division I schools during the early signing period, including Williams, who signed with South Carolina as one of the nation’s top-ranked players.
Manatee County at the summer games
Manatee and Sarasota counties became an unlikely hub for Olympic qualifying and training leading up to the 2016 Summer Olympics. It began in April with the USRowing Olympic trials at Nathan Benderson Park. A month later, the Modern Pentathlon World Cup in Sarasota determined the United States’ Olympic qualifiers. As the summer went on, Athletics Australia came to train at IMG Academy, IMG coach Kibwe Johnson qualified for the games and another Ascender got caught up in a controversy with Athletics Kenya. Back in down in Sarasota, the new Sarasota BMX Track became an Olympic prep destination.
Marauders finally finish the job
After three failed cracks at winning the Florida State League championship during their first six years of existence, the Marauders made history this season with their first FSL title. Bradenton’s spot in the postseason was also ensured earlier than ever — 2016 saw the Pirates’ Class A Advanced affiliate win a first-half title for the first time — and the Marauders cruised through the playoffs. They breezed to a two-game sweep of the Mets in the division championship and then took care of the Yankees in five to win the league.
Bayshore proves swimming supremacy
There were better all-around teams than Bayshore, but it’s hard to find a better one-two punch anywhere in the area — in any sport — than T.C. Smith and Ryley Ober. Smith followed up a state title a year ago with a Class 2A championship in the 200-yard freestyle and a silver medal in the 500 freestyle. Ober did him one better. She won 2A titles in both the 200 and 500 for her first two gold medals. Smith finishes his career with the Bruins with a pair of gold medals. Only a sophomore, Ober has already matched him.
Saint Stephen’s makes history
An emotional postgame speech from Fred Billy put a fitting bow on Saint Stephen’s first football state championship of any kind. The quarterback had almost singlehandedly led a come-from-behind 21-14 win against Vero Beach Saint Edward’s in the Florida Bowl to give the Falcons the Sunshine State Athletic Conference title a year after falling short in the championship game. With Billy and star running back Chase Brown returning, the Falcons offense should be potent again and give Saint Stephen’s an opportunity to repeat.
A Pirates staple leaves Bradenton
In the midst of the Marauders’ historic playoff run, Trevor Gooby, the Pirates’ longtime director of Florida operations, confirmed he would be leaving Bradenton for a job with the Mariners in Seattle. Gooby’s run with Pittsburgh was groundbreaking — he oversaw renovations at Pirate City and McKechnie Field, and ran the Florida operations during the founding of Marauders. His replacement is a familiar face, though. Jeff Podobnik had been Pittsburgh’s director of security in contract services before returning to Bradenton, where he had preceded Gooby as the director of Forida ops.
Willie Taggart gets a dream job
It’s crazy to think about Willie Taggart’s turnaround from where he stood at the start of last season. The Manatee alumnus was on the hot seat after a disappointing start to his career as South Florida’s head coach. Next fall, he will coach Oregon.
The Ducks plucked the Palmetto native to lead one of the nation’s marquee programs and the effects are still being felt throughout Manatee County. High school stars will have to weigh the merits of playing for new USF head coach Charlie Strong. Ex-Hurricanes in Tampa will have to adjust to playing for a new coach. And former Canes head coach Joe Kinnan and Palmetto native Raymond Woodie have their futures up in the air after spending the past few seasons on Taggart’s staff with the Bulls.