Lakewood Ranch Mustangs aim to take state baseball crown

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- One year short of the 10th anniversary of its first state baseball title, Lakewood Ranch High School will try to make history again.

The Mustangs leave at 3 p.m. Wednesday for Port St. Lucie for the Class 6A State Baseball Tournament, hoping to achieve the crown that the 2003 team was able to capture behind Lastings Milledge, Ryan Kennedy and Larry Cobb, who have become local legends.

The names are different and the team plays a different brand of baseball thanks to a change in bats mandated by the Florida High School Athletic Association. But the excitement is still as high and these kids are hungry to carve out their own identity.

Beth VanVranken, administrator for Little League District 26, which encompasses Braden River and Lakewood Ranch, is not surprised at this team's success.

She notes nine players on the high school team played on at least one of the Braden River teams that had huge success when these kids were coming up through the youth leagues.

"The Braden River 11-12-year-old team (Majors) and the Junior All-Stars team made it to the state final game with many of these players; and Braden River Hurricanes won a state championship when most of them were 12-year-olds," VanVranken said. "They know each other and play well together and are very experienced. They are a very talented group of players that knows how to win. They eat, sleep and drink baseball."

The group includes: Seth McGarry, Bryan VanVranken, Jake Axley, Kyle Benson, Conner Lewellen, Brandon King, Mike Lolli, Andrew Norton and Zack Larson.

The '03 Lakewood Ranch team just had to take the short ride to Tampa to win the coveted crown while this squad has to travel across the state and is playing a powerhouse in defending state champion Archbishop McCarthy in a Thursday night game at Digital Domain Park.

This 2012 group has its own set of heroes led by McGarry, who doesn't fear anyone and is oozing with confidence.

"I've played with most of these kids since I was 8 or 9 years old and to go to states with them is a big deal," McGarry says. "I am not too worried about McCarthy. We are just going to do what we do, which is score our runs, pitch and play some defense. I feel we will win."

McGarry has been an inspiration to the team because of a shoulder injury that kept him from pitching and playing the field nearly the entire season. But he is healthy now and a key reason the Mustangs are in a position to win a state crown.

McGarry doesn't want to be called a superstar and says that distinction should go to Larson, the centerfielder who could be selected in this year's Major League draft and is the Mustangs top pro prospect.

Larson gave up his senior year of football to concentrate on baseball hoping it would put him in a position to help make the team as strong as possible.

"Going to states has been my dream since I was a freshman and to go with this great group of teammates is special," says Larson, who has committed to play at State College of Florida.