High School Sports

Prep sports | The 2014-15 Year in Review

MANATEE -- It's about halfway through the summer break for area high schools, so it's a perfect time to reflect on the prep season that delivered excitement throughout the tail end of 2014 and the first half of 2015.

There were unexpected deep postseason runs, individual state championship glory, record-setting performances and trouble off the field.

So here's a glance at the 2014-15 high school sports year, season by season:

Golden Girls

When the fall season began, few could have predicted Manatee's volleyball program would take a team with one senior and a brand-new head coach to heights not seen in Manatee County since 1986.

But the Hurricanes believed they could and would march through the Class 8A state tournament, and haul a state championship back to the area.

That's exactly what Manatee did.

The Canes, who had never before made it past the regional semifinals, stirred up excitement at football-heavy Manatee High in the process.

"At the beginning of the season, the crowd wasn't very big. And it's just gradually gotten bigger," said head coach Tony Cothron during the playoff run. "I think that comes with success with the team. I've been on the realm of both ends. A team that's not playing very well or their record isn't showing very well, you get parents, and that's about it. Now ... there's other people who want to come out and see why we're doing so well."

The Canes, who no longer needed to compete with national and state power Venice for regional bragging rights after Manatee moved up to 8A starting in 2013, survived their first playoff scare against district rival Palm Harbor University in the regional semifinals.

Manatee edged PHU in five sets, before sweeping its way to a region title and a state semifinal victory.

Then came the 8A state championship at Kissimmee, where Manatee fell behind nationally-ranked Jupiter after the first set.

"It wasn't just, 'Let's go to state.' It was, 'Let's win state.' There's a big difference," said junior Jacqui Armer, who had six kills and three blocks. "We did what we needed to do to get the job done."

In addition to Armer, the Canes were led by the Coulter sisters: junior Haley (18 kills and 14 digs against Jupiter) and twins Gabby and JoJo.

Haley, a Tulsa commit, grabbed 8A Player of the Year honors after finishing with 356 kills, 261 digs and 31 blocks. Cothron was named the 8A Coach of the Year following his first season in charge of the Canes.

Jesse Durst, who had nine digs against Jupiter, is the only departing senior on the squad that also featured Gillian Cassidy's 22 assists in the state title match.

It was the first state volleyball title since 1986 when Palmetto brought home the 2A hardware. Lakewood Ranch made a deep run opposite Manatee this season, but fell to Winter Springs in the 7A state semifinals.

Differing first-year results at traditional football powers

The old adage of, "Never being the guy to the follow the guy," was invoked at Southeast and Manatee High during the football season.

John Warren and John Booth took over for a pair of legends as Paul Maechtle (Southeast) and Joe Kinnan (Manatee) left the sidelines.

It was the first time the Manatee County prep football scene didn't showcase either legend guiding Southeast or Manatee since 1980.

The new era wasn't a good start for Warren as the Seminoles went 1-9 with a young group.

Booth found more success, going 12-2 and tying for third place in the Class 8A Coach of the Year balloting.

Manatee fell in the 8A state semifinals, falling 45-14 to eventual champion Apopka.

"They overload, and you try to make adjustments and overload their side and they come back with a counter," said Booth, who captured the program's 15th regional title in his first season coaching at his alma mater. "It's just tough, and it's tough to simulate in practice. ... They're good at it. So it's a tough one to defend. But we had some moments, and when were able to get the ball back to our offense, we didn't make enough big plays."

Johnnie Lang, who rushed for 2,116 yards and 32 touchdowns, took third in the 8A Player of the Year voting. However, Lang joined star defensive end Kwanzi Jackson and defensive back Malik Mitchell in some off-field trouble during the spring, but more on that later.

Maecthle didn't stay away from the game long as he became an assistant at Cardinal Mooney, where his grandson Tommy Vassallo played.

Utilizing a mantra picked up from the previous season ending due to a penalty at the 6-yard line, the Cougars picked up a district title before nearly shocked state-ranked Clearwater Central Catholic in a 3A regional final.

Meanwhile, Braden River's fourth coach since the program began varsity football in 2007, Curt Bradley, completed a turnaround from a dismal 1-9 campaign in 2012 - Bradley's first season in charge - with the Pirates first unbeaten regular season and district championship.

"The best thing is for the kids that were here and the coaches that were here from that 1-9 season. To start where we were and be where we are now, that growth and that improvement for those young men is what it's all about," Bradley said after the Pirates beat Palmetto to win the District 10 title. "We attribute it to hard work and dedication and a commitment from the coaching staff and the community and from the players. The players stood their ground and took all that chastising and went to work."

To accomplish the 10-1 season, which ended in the second round of the 7A playoffs, the Pirates featured several stars including defensive back JoJo Louis, whose scary neck injury served as a rallying point, quarterback Jacob Huesman (more than 1,900 passing yards, only three interceptions in 200 attempts) and wide receiver Justin Ross (41 receptions).

Louis finished with eight interceptions, with two going for touchdowns, while Bradley picked up a 7A Coach of the Year nomination.

Other fall happenings

The Lakewood Ranch boys golf team's stranglehold over the state ended last fall. The Mustangs streak of three straight team state championships was snapped with a ninth place finish in the Class 3A tournament.

Lakewood Ranch's Luke Hanner (200-yard freestyle), Lakewood Ranch's Daniel Erlenmeyer (500 freestyle) and Cardinal Mooney's Austin Katz (200-yard freestyle, 100-yard backstroke) collected individual boys swimming state titles. Hanner and Erlenmeyer competed in Class 3A, while Katz did his double-whammy in 1A. In addition, Katz helped a five-man Cougars team finish second in the team standings behind state power Jacksonville Bolles.

Lakewood Ranch's Madison Jean earned the maximum four medals from the Class 3A state swim meet, where she logged a career-best time of 54.27 seconds for a second place finish in the 100-yard butterfly.

Cardinal Mooney's Cal Davidson Turner took 9th at the 1A state cross-country meet with a time of 16:20.70 for the area's best finish.

Unlikely playoff push, part one

Missing four starters off the 2014 Class 5A state championship team, Southeast girls basketball coach John Harder had a youthful squad at the helm this past winter.

Getting back to the big dance wasn't an expected outcome, unless you believe in Cinderella's fairy tale story.

But Harder guided his club to a 21-4 regular season, relying on a speedy defense to disrupt opponents and it worked in landing back into the 5A Final Four.

The Noles were tripped up in the 5A state semifinals by Fort Lauderdale Dillard, who had too much size and moxie for Southeast.

The Panthers blew out the Noles 73-29, but Harder wasn't worried moving forward.

"I am always an optimist. I am a proud Seminole. I knew going in it was going to be a tough, tough game, but my girls never quit," Harder said. "They were much taller, much more aggressive and very, very physical, but we are in a position where we are only going to get better. I would love to bring this group back here again."

Lakewood Ranch also picked up steam in the postseason after district foe Sarasota, who was ranked No. 1 in Class 7A, was upset in the regional quarterfinals.

That led to the Mustangs advancing to a regional final as a district runner-up, where Fort Myers squeaked out a 55-51 victory.

The key, though, was Lakewood Ranch committing 18 turnovers due to the Green Wave's press defense.

"We turned the ball over entirely too much. We can't have that many turnovers in a game like this," Lakewood Ranch head coach Tina Hadley said.

After the season concluded, Ranch's star sophomore, LaDazhia Williams, was named to the 7A All-State first team after averaging a double-double for the season with 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Unlikely playoff push, part two

The journey to Melbourne for high school soccer's Final Four didn't seem like a destination Marc Jones and the Saint Stephen's boys soccer team were going to make.

That's because the Falcons head coach appeared to have a rebuilding project this season when four key starters off the previous year's state semifinal squad were no longer around.

But like Harder did with the Southeast girls basketball team, Jones did the same with the Falcons.

He plugged in the gaps, creating a devastating midfield with Antonio Colacci, Henry Howell and John Boyd.

That was evidenced in the 6-2 region victory against Clearwater Calvary Christian that sent the home faithful at the Moore Athletic Complex at Turner Fields into a boisterous mood.

"There's something special about this team. It's not maybe the most talented group from one to 11 all the way through, but it's a team that has a lot of character, a lot of heart, grit, determination as well as an abundance of skill," Jones said. "Going a goal down, it doesn't faze them. They know what they've got to do. They work hard for each other as a team, and they did the business again."

The dream did end short of the state championship against powerful Maitland Orangewood Christian.

The Rams cruised to the 1A state title by conceding just one goal in the postseason, which included a 3-0 victory against the youthful Falcons.

"We've got a young team," Jones said. "We'll learn from this, and especially the younger players and I'm sure we'll come back. ... Hopefully, two more games further next year."

Other winter happenings

Inspired by the University of Louisville taking notice, future Cardinal signee Ryan McMahon's sharp-shooting sent Cardinal Mooney on a Class 3A state semifinal run, where the Cougars lost by 13 points to Weston Sagemont.

Manatee's Jesse Fulk finally earned a state wrestling title that he had craved, when he moved up in weight to capture the 182-pound crown in Class 3A.

The top two girls soccer programs, Manatee and Lakewood Ranch, had disappointing ends to their seasons. The Canes fell in the regional quarterfinals after collecting a district title. The Mustangs racked up wins all season, but struggled in dropping the district title match and region semifinal match to Venice.

A class by herself

Lakewood Ranch senior Ashley Bongart's last chance at state championship glory turned out to be unforgettable.

The University of Tennessee-bound Bongart gave up her shot at collecting a doubles state title with teammate Lauren Proctor so the Mustangs would have a better chance at bringing the team championship back to Manatee County.

Her father and head coach, Ed, painstakingly took a couple months before enacting the plan.

And at the end of the Class 3A state tennis tournament, the maneuver worked with the Mustangs becoming the first public school to collect a girls tennis team title in Manatee County prep history.

"It's tough because if me and Lauren stay together, we've got a really good shot at winning state as individual doubles," Ashley Bongart said. "I think it was better for the team if we split up because we can gain more points than if we were just together. I'm glad that we split up. It was probably the right decision. If not, we wouldn't be where we are right now as state champions."

Ashley Bongart, though, also earned some history, too.

She became the only player in Manatee County girls high school tennis history to win a team, individual singles and individual doubles state title for her career.

She accomplished the feat with a doubles title in 2012, before capping the singles and team championships this past spring.

"It started to hit me then how much of an accomplishment it was," said Ed Bongart, who scoured the record books following the state tourney to see when or if it had been done before.

Off-field trouble

In March, Manatee's football program was front-and-center, but not for good reasons. Three players were arrested in connection with home burglaries in Bradenton.

Defensive end Kwanzi Jackson, running back Johnnie Lang and defensive back Malik Mitchell were arrested, and all three were suspended as per the district policy.

"As of this morning all three student-athletes involved have been indefinitely suspended from all extracurricular activities at Manatee High School, including participation with any football-related activities," said Manatee High athletic director Jason Montgomery in a statement at the time.

Since then, Jackson was reinstated while Lang and Mitchell await a trial during a two-week period beginning Sept. 21.

"He can definitely help us, but the most important thing is how Kwanzi has been able to handle himself throughout the process. We are happy he has been able to grow and learn from this situation," Manatee football head coach John Booth said. "He was told the things he needed to do by the court system, and he did them and there was no negative reaction or anything to raise concerns."

Other spring happenings

Out-of-Door Academy produced the area's lone baseball district title, despite only getting seven games from the highly-touted Desmond Lindsay, who the New York Mets drafted with the 53rd overall selection in June's Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

Manatee's 4-by-100-meter relay team, consisting of Kavious Price, Jarquevis Laughlin, Kelvin McKnight and Sam Vrinios, brought a gold medal back from the Class 4A state meet. So did Bayshore's Joy Norman in the high jump from the 2A state meet.

Manatee's Darian Oliver became a state champion at the 2A boys weightlifting meet when he recorded a personal-best bench press of 250 pounds. He tallied 445 total pounds when he added a 190-pound clean and jerk to secure the 119-pound weight division state crown at the Kissimmee Civic Center.

Saint Stephen's boys tennis team of Zach Bessette, Brian Berdusco, Russell Berdusco, Nani Forcano and Neo Cho shared the 1A state team championship with Weston Sagemont.

In the annual Sunshine Cup all-sports awards, Lakewood Ranch racked up 99.75 points for the 2014-15 school year to snag third place in Class 7A.

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