High School Sports

Ohlman spearheads Mustangs' title run

LAKEWOOD RANCH - Al Melnick had seen enough. Last week when his Manatee High baseball team met Lakewood Ranch, Melnick saw Michael Ohlman walking to the plate with runners in scoring position and first base open.

Melnick raised his hand and told his pitcher to put Ohlman on. This was done partly because Ohlman had already burned the Canes for two hits in the game.

Ohlman said it was the first time he'd been intentionally walked all season, and he was a little disappointed because every hitter wants a chance to do just that - hit. But Ohlman might want to get used to the free rides to first base.

Only a sophomore and already one of the most dangerous hitters in Manatee County, Ohlman's bat and play behind the plate give the Mustangs an exciting talent for years to come. But more importantly, he's helping make Lakewood Ranch a winner again.

Through Tuesday, the Mustangs (11-1, 6-1 Class 5A-District 12) were back on top and have a shot to win their first district championship since 2003, the same year they won the state title.

In Gus Schlosser and Jon Griffin, the Mustangs had some quality talent returning from last year's squad, but the emergence of Ohlman has helped Lakewood Ranch become a more consistent team.

"He's been hitting close to .500 since he walked out here," said Lakewood Ranch coach Dave Moates.

Last year, Ohlman didn't hit that well on junior varsity. After hitting a still respectable .400 last year, Ohlman said he's a completely different and better hitter this season - even as he faced older, better competition.

"I went out every day, doing a lot of things to make myself better," said Ohlman, who is family friends with former Palmetto catcher Brian Peacock, a professional who Ohlman gives a lot of credit to for his success and his decision to be a catcher. "This is what I prepared myself for. I matured quickly over the offseason. Now everything comes easier. I don't try to hit the ball hard. It just comes.

"This is what I looked forward to, and now it's here."

Much of his improvement Ohlman attributes to his work with Dwayne Strong, the local hitter guru based at the Sandlot at 5 Tools Baseball in downtown Bradenton. Each day after school and after he finished his homework, Ohlman headed over to Strong's cages, where he'd take countless swings that honed his technique.

When Ohlman was only a middle schooler, Strong took him under his wing and invited him to play Kirby Stewart American Legion ball with the high school kids.

"I was excited," Ohlman said of the experience. "I was like a little kid out there with like a bunch of big brothers."

The experience helped ease the transition to varsity ball, Ohlman said. Strong also put the youngster through a weight routine this fall and winter that helped him add 30 pounds of muscle to his frame.

The hard work has paid off early and often for Ohlman. Impressed with Ohlman's approach, Moates put the 16-year-old at the No. 1 spot in the order three games into the season.

"He's patient. He doesn't try to pull the ball, unless it's a mistake," Moates said. "He's got good eye-hand coordination and makes good contact. A lot of his hits have been to the gaps and to the opposite field."

Senior outfielder Jacob Wilbanks said the Mustangs knew they had a hole to fill at catcher with the graduation of Jay Freed. But Wilbanks, one of the Mustangs' veterans, had no idea Ohlman would have such an impact.

"No one expected him to be a leadoff hitter," Wilbanks said. "He's been taught real well, the way he throws his hands at the ball. He's never really doubted himself."

Asked about giving a sophomore the responsibility of catching every day and leading off, Moates brought up past sophomores he's had in the program. Moates talked about Larry Cobb, Ryan Kennedy and Mike Cucci, which is illustrious company for Ohlman to keep.

"He's a very talented young man, with a lot of tools," Moates said. "He's gonna make somebody in college very happy one of these days."