Alan Dell

Commentary | Lakewood Ranch baseball team carving out own identity, but Kennedy provides link to past

When Lakewood Ranch travels to Port St. Lucie for this week's state baseball tournament, every player on the team might want to take a seat next to assistant coach Ryan Kennedy.

When it comes to baseball, Kennedy is Manatee County's ultimate winner.

"Ryan doesn't say a lot, but when he speaks people know they need to listen," Ranch head baseball coach Mike Mullen says.

Kennedy is a gold star.

He played on that 1997 Manatee East Little League team that finished national runner-up and third at the Little League World Series.

He was the starting shortstop on Lakewood Ranch's 2003 state championship baseball team and the starting second baseman on two straight national championship teams at the University of Tampa.

He also experienced disappointment during his one year at what was then Manatee Community College when the Lancers were ranked in the top five nationally all season and got bounced out of the

state tournament in two games.

"We got cold at the wrong time. We all wanted to win so bad for coach Tim Hill because he was going into the Hall of Fame and maybe that got to us," Kennedy says.

Nearly every team Kennedy played on won a championship. He is the kind of guy Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon likes to have on his roster.

"You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't have team chemistry you will have a tough road ahead of you," Kennedy says. "When you have it, someone makes an error or something happens at the plate and you know the next guy can pick you up. It takes the pressure off, and you never give up."

Seth McGarry's golden right arm is the most valuable weaponry in Mullen's arsenal, but there is a lot more to this team.

Kennedy says the '03 team and this year's squad are similar in attitude, but different in other areas.

Despite McGarry's heroics coming off Lakewood Ranch's version of the disabled list, this year's Mustangs have deeper pitching. The '03 team was a two-man show, and both pitchers were lefties in Ryan LaCross and Brent Solich, also now an assistant with the Mustangs.

McGarry is the Mustangs' version of Superman. In 19 1/3 innings, he has a 0.72 earned-run average and has struck out 25. He is second on the team with a .437 batting average.

But there are other stars.

Brandon King, Brad Zunica, Kyle Benson, Dominic Leone and Jake Axley have taken their turns at keeping opposing batters off the base paths and helped the staff compile a 2.31 ERA. King and Axley have combined for 15 of the Mustangs' 24 victories.

"Pitching is the one thing this team has more of than the '03 team by far," Kennedy says. "We have four starters who can go about five-plus innings and four other guys who can relieve."

Kennedy says you have to look into the eyes to recognize a winner. It helps you separate the good teams from the great ones.

"This team has a spark plug of seniors that want it real bad. You can tell it in their eyes, just like we had it," Kennedy says. "It's hard to compare lineups because they are using different bats. I would've loved to see these guys swing with the older models we had because the ball doesn't go as far with the new bat."

Centerfielder Zack Larson still shows a lot of pop, leading the team in homers (four), RBIs (32) and batting average (.439). Kennedy even sees similarities between Larson and Lastings Milledge, the centerfielder on the '03 team and 12th overall pick by the New York Mets in that year's Major League Baseball draft.

Kennedy gives the players on this team credit for their versatility, particularly in the infield, where McGarry's injury forced many to play different positions. Kennedy had to switch from short to second in college and says it wasn't easy.

"Ryan and Brent bring a kind of younger attitude, and the kids respond to them. To have them going to states with us is huge. I have a plaque of the '03 championship team on my door with their picture, and it's an incentive," Mullen said.

Kennedy, who works for Florida Power & Light, has his degree from Tampa and hopes to get into coaching and teaching full time, preferably in Manatee County.

"As a player it was a great feeling to go to states. You wanted to play the next day and it was a long week, but as I coach it feels even longer," Kennedy says. "I know what these guys are feeling and I am happy for them. Any knowledge I can share with them from my experience I would be glad to do."

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2112.