Chemistry in team sports isn't something that can be taught. It just happens.
Either the group meshes, or it doesn't.
With the 2003 Lakewood Ranch High baseball team, the chemistry was there from the first day.
The team mixed players from the Manatee East squad that finished second in the country at the 1997 Little League World Series with players from Braden River Little League.
"Probably 80 percent of that team grew up with each other, playing baseball throughout the years," said Brent Solich, who was a first-team all-state selection that season as a pitcher. "Everybody knew everybody. And then having 12-13 seniors, all in the same class, they've known each other, playing baseball with each other since they were 8 years old at least. It just makes it easier. Team chemistry was great."
One of those players from the "Beasts from the East" Little League squad was Rocky Schwartz.
Solich, a left-handed dynamo on the hill, said Schwartz, who went to
the University of Houston to play football and now coaches that sport as an assistant at Palmetto, needed some convincing to play baseball that year.
So with all the pieces set, a magical season unfolded.
Ultimately, the Mustangs finished 14th in the nation after polishing off Tallahassee Lincoln in the Class 5A state championship. The talent on the squad, which produced several college players and major leaguer Lastings Milledge, and the state crown it won are why the Herald has named the 2003 Lakewood Ranch Mustangs the Areaa's All-Time best baseball team from the last 50 seasons.
"To be a part of the best team in Manatee County in 50 years, it's exciting," said Ryan Kennedy, an all-state first-team selection as an infielder that season. "With all the great teams to come out of this county and players, to be ranked number one, to be chosen number one is a great feeling. It's all about hard work and that dedication that we put in."
The dream season almost came to a crashing halt before the playoff run started. The Mustangs ran through a regular season at 23-6, losing games to district rival Cape Coral ace Jake Stevens twice and Parkway (Mo.), which had American League Cy Young front-runner Max Scherzer throwing that day.
Ranch didn't have to face Stevens, who was drafted in the third round of MLB's 2003 Draft, in the district championship, which the Mustangs secured easily 13-4.
Then the regional portion of the 5A tournament began against Naples Gulf Coast.
"We took Gulf Coast lightly because they had some guys that were sleepers," Solich said. "Not really amazing on paper, but they'll mess you up."
Taking them lightly nearly cost the Mustangs everything they had worked hard to gain at up to that point.
The program's prized prospect, Milledge, got the ball rolling late with a swipe of home plate to push the first run across.
Then the two-out rally kept going and going until a 5-0 deficit was erased and the Mustangs escaped the first round with a walk-off victory.
That experience changed the focus for the team as the Mustangs cruised through each subsequent game until meeting Lincoln for the 5A state championship.
Utilizing a strategy that he adopted from Charlie Smythers' coaching of the 1998 Bradenton Christian Panthers that resulted in that program's lone baseball state title, head coach Dave Moates opted for a two-man rotation late in the season.
That meant using Solich and Ryan Lacross in every game. When one started, the other closed the game.
"What impressed me the most was the last five games of the season, the three regional games and the two state playoff games, those kids did not make one physical mistake," Moates said. "They did not make one error in those five games."
Solich shut out Boynton Beach in the state semifinals the night before, making it understood he was unavailable for the state title meeting with Lincoln.
And for a good while, it looked like he wasn't going to be needed as the Mustangs enjoyed a comfortable advantage. Lincoln, though, stormed back, and Solich was summoned from the pen.
"I didn't expect to go in, because I had just thrown the day before," Solich said. "My arm pretty much felt like an outstretched rubber band with no elasticity. It's not like it hurt or anything. It was just dead arm. I was just like, 'Keep the ball low. Keep the ball down.' I was thinking to myself, 'Throw the least amount of sliders as possible.' ... When I came in, it was a blur. ... I remember getting a fly ball to right field, and I screamed so loud. I screamed, 'Yeah,' so loud because I thought it was the third out and it was only the second out. Nobody has ever said anything to me about that. I really can't remember anything other than getting the last two outs, which both were fly balls to right field."
Those two flyouts to right field finished the season, giving the program its first state title, a 7-6 victory over Lincoln.
The team had several key contributors and players that continued baseball at the next level. Kennedy's partner in the middle of the infield, Larry Cobb, played professionally. Lacross went to Florida Southern. The rest of the team included: Marcus Maestre, Robert McNaughton, Mike King, Ryan Enger, Kent DeLazzer, Matt Heller, Aaron Bassett, Mark Heller, Greg Kaufman, Mike Merritt, Shaun Golus, Mike Cucci, Eric Cassels and Craig Page.
Last spring was the program's 10th-year anniversary of the state championship team, so a little celebration was held in conjunction with Ranch's Senior Night as Kennedy (head coach) and Solich (pitching coach) are back at their high school alma mater looking to give the program another state title down the road.
But the memory of 2003 will always hold that special place in their hearts.
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Known as the Pendleton School at the time and competing in the FHSAA as an independent, the team went 31-1 while winning four national tournament titles. The team featured six local players that were born and raised in Bradenton or Sarasota. They were J.R. Murphy, Cal Lambert, Tyler Rubino, Nick Mace, Casey Mulholland and Jimmy O'Neil. The latter two played baseball at State College of Florida recently, while Murphy was drafted by the New York Yankees. Longtime Major League Baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer's son, Dillon, was drafted alongside Murphy and Blaze Tart. But Moyer and Tart opted to attend college.
1998 Bradenton Christian
The Panthers racked up an impressive resume en route to winning the Class 1A state championship. Riding the arm of James Morrison, BCS rolled through the season and playoffs, dropping just three games. Morrison went undefeated from the mound and struck out 13 batters in a state semifinal gem against Deltona Trinity Christian Academy.
Morrison, an all-state selection, was joined in that department by a couple other teammates, including Nathan Kragt, who is in the BCS Hall of Fame.
Mike Van Serke's club wasn't the most polished during the regular season, but it all clicked once the postseason began, and the rest is history. With a hot bat in Tony Milledge and a top arm in Brian Ramsden, the Tigers went through the Class 3A state tournament unscathed. However, that's not to say there weren't some nervy times as Palmetto faced a daunting task in beating Key West.
But the Tigers got the job done, getting a 7-6 win in the old Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota to finish 22-7 and give the program its first state championship. Ramsden was a key cog from the mound, throwing in five of Palmetto's seven tournament games (including the district) that led him to posting two shutouts and a 0.74 earned run average.