Sports

The best of the best: Here’s how Lakewood Ranch High’s softball team got to No. 1 in the country

Lakewood Ranch softball team, tops in the nation, plays green

The Lakewood Ranch girls softball team is currently the top in the nation.
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The Lakewood Ranch girls softball team is currently the top in the nation.

The table sits near the doorway to the locker room, with two legs having slogans from the past two years etched on them in social-media driven shorthand.

There’s #Z2V carved in one leg to signify “Zero to Vero,” from the 2017 season that was the battle cry to become the first Manatee County high school team to win a state softball championship.

There’s #OHOG on another leg referring to “One Herd, One Goal,” from the 2018 campaign, which utilized Lakewood Ranch High’s nickname, the Mustangs, in combination with the collective end game goal.

Those two seasons, though, saw Lakewood Ranch run into a scorching-hot pitcher who cut the Mustangs’ quest short of their dream.

So for the 2019 season, the motto became, “Play Green,” as reinforcement not to play cautious at any time. It’s worked thus far, because the Mustangs (21-0) are ranked No. 1 in the nation, according to MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25 poll.

They achieved that ranking after winning two games last weekend, while California’s Norco High lost one.

“It’s amazing,” junior pitcher Claire Davidson said.

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The Lakewood Ranch girls softball team, Payton Kinney, Claire Davidson, Avery Goelz, Kayla Howald, Jill Herbst and Brooklyn Lucero in their locker room before heading out to play a game against Venice. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

While there’s excitement at attaining the No. 1 ranking in the country, the Mustangs aren’t content with that. The ultimate goal is to bring home the county’s first fast-pitch state softball championship.

In 2017, they fell in a regional final. In 2018, they were eliminated in the state semifinals.

This year’s group, though, is arguably its best with 12 players committed to playing college softball. Part of that is a loaded pitching staff, but also the mindset that head coach T.J. Goelz instilled through this season’s slogan of playing green.

Players utter the phrase before a game starts, and there’s a tangible item that sits in their dugout during games to keep that motto in focus.

It’s a traffic light connected to a stand that’s plugged into an outlet to sit on green in keeping with this year’s theme. When the Mustangs take the field on defense, a player switches it to red to “stop” the opposing team’s hitters. Then it gets switched back to green when Lakewood Ranch returns to offense.

“I don’t want them playing to protect the streak or to protect a ranking,” Goelz said.

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A refurbished traffic light has helped the Lakewood Ranch High softball team to a 21-0 record with one week remaining in the regular season. Jason Dill jdill@bradenton.com

Goelz went to a friend who services poles and lights, and had an old one refurbished with a stand that was donated to the program.

That’s one piece to the Mustangs program this year, while Goelz began work to get the team a locker room two years ago.

The Miss Manatee Softball League operates around Lakewood Ranch’s field, and as a byproduct, the building encompassing the press box also was home to the league with some office space. Goelz asked the league if the storage room that wasn’t used much upstairs could be turned into a locker room. That was two years ago, and the birth of Lakewood Ranch’s softball locker room came to fruition through sponsorship and community support.

And there’s a sign attached to the wall for the players to smack when walking down the stairs to exit the building on game days, with origins at Notre Dame: “Play Like a Champion Today.”

All of it is part of growing Lakewood Ranch’s softball program into one of the state’s best. A future endeavor is making the small wall near the building housing the locker room into a Hall of Fame.

But before all that, there is the business end of this season, which involves winning 21 straight games to begin the year with the hopes of reeling off five straight playoff wins to secure a state title.

To get to where they are now, the Mustangs rely on timely hitting and ridiculous pitching depth.

Four Horsewomen

Most high school softball teams have one or two solid pitchers who are leaned on to make deep tournament runs. What’s unique about this year’s Lakewood Ranch team is how many arms the Mustangs can throw at opponents without any drop in talent. The Mustangs boast four Division I-committed pitchers, each with a different look.

“It gives the batter different views,” said senior pitcher Kayla Howald, who is committed to Campbell. “So it always messes with them.”

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The Lakewood Ranch girls softball team, Payton Kinney, Claire Davidson, Avery Goelz, Kayla Howald, Jill Herbst and Brooklyn Lucero in their locker room before heading out to play a game against Venice. Tiffany Tompkins ttompkins@bradenton.com

Claire Davidson, who moved to the Lakewood Ranch area of Bradenton from Virginia at the beginning of this school year, is a junior committed to Auburn and throws hitters off-balance with curves and change-ups.

Brooklyn Lucero, another junior, is committed to North Carolina State. She has a devastating drop ball.

Payton Kinney, the third junior of the Mustangs’ Four Horsewomen staff, is committed to Connecticut and is a rise ball pitcher but in a different way to Howald.

Lucero and Howald haven’t allowed an earned run, while Davidson and Kinney are equally stingy from the pitcher’s circle.

“At my old school ... I was the only pitcher,” Davidson said. “... So this one, it’s a lot different but it’s kind of nice. Because you don’t have all the pressure if you’re doing bad or if you’re having an off game.”

Hit Machine

As stout as their pitching is, the Mustangs aren’t slouches at the plate. They have six hitters with a .300 or better average, with Davidson smashing seven home runs and Avery Goelz, a junior first baseman committed to Florida, adding five homers.

But as good as the offense is, there are times when creativity is needed to overcome a pitcher who is lights out on that day. It’s something that knocked Lakewood Ranch out in the region final in 2017 and the state semifinals in 2018.

“Last year, we weren’t happy with how we finished,” Avery Goelz said. “It kind of left a little fire behind, just that we know how close we got last year. We were so close that we can do it this year, especially with the talent that we have.”

Last weekend, the Mustangs encountered Gainesville High’s Alissa Humphrey, who struck out 26 Lakewood Ranch batters in a 14-inning marathon.

The Mustangs, though, scraped their way to victory and overcoming adversity like that is precisely part of the “Play Green” mantra that is this year’s focus.

“I don’t think they ever thought they were going to lose,” T.J. Goelz said. “It was just, ‘Can we outlast this kid, because she’s on?’ ”

Lakewood Ranch players committed for college softball

Seniors

Kayla Howald, pitcher, Campbell

Emily Hughes, outfield/infield, SCF

Maddie Koczersut, third base, SCF

Madison Schaefer, catcher, SCF

Juniors

Emma Anthony, designated player, East Carolina

McKenzie Clark, catcher, Clemson

Claire Davidson, pitcher/outfield, Auburn

Avery Goelz, first base/outfield, Florida

Payton Kinney, pitcher, UConn

Brooklyn Lucero, pitcher, North Carolina State

Kali Reis, shortstop, UCF

Taylor Woodring, right field, East Carolina

Sports reporter Jason has covered high school, college and pro sports since joining the Bradenton Herald in 2010. He’s won Florida Press Club awards for sports feature and column writing. He currently writes college and pro sports stories for the McClatchy East Region real-time team.


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