The Lakewood Ranch baseball team won something more valuable than a state title last week.
It came home from the Class 6A final four with a wealth of respect and admiration money can't buy.
This isn't just about the last-inning rally that brought the Mustangs back from the graveyard.
In case you didn't notice. Archbishop McCarthy, which beat Lakewood Ranch 6-4 in the semifinal, won its third straight state title the next day.
This should shed light on what the Mustangs were up against. McCarthy, like many private schools that put athletics up there with apple pie and grandma's cooking, is a baseball factory.
You don't turn out the talent that this school has the last three years because you are fortunate that some elite players happened to walk through your doors.
The Mavericks won the USA Today mythical national championship last year. They have had some of the best high school arms in America toil on the mound the last few years. Bet on it they will have some new ones next year.
This is not to whine and claim sour grapes. It is simply the real world we live in.
Lakewood Ranch is a homegrown baseball team that was at a distinct disadvantage in regard to the talent pool it can draw from.
The Mustangs lost to the three-time state champs going down to their final out with the bases loaded and winning run on first.
It's a credit to the youth
baseball programs that serve the kids who play ball for Lakewood Ranch and all those coaches who put in the time.
And kudos to Mustangs head baseball coach Mike Mullen.
He did one of the best baseball coaching jobs this area has ever seen.
Lakewood Ranch had some weaknesses, and Mullen did an excellent job of hiding them. But his greatest triumph was how he handled injuries and did not rush some players back into action too early. Case in point: ace pitcher Seth McGarry.
Mullen showed he will take a loss before allowing a young kid to ruin a potentially great career because he did not give him enough time to heal.
All the players talked about their great chemistry. You have to give Mullen a lot of the credit because he is the person who stirs the drink.
He created a positive atmosphere on a team that could've gone the other way after three players did not to return this year and bolted for a private school that specializes in baseball.
Mullen took the high road and never condemned those who left. Instead, he concentrated on the kids who wanted to stay, and they rewarded him with a trip to the state final four.
If the FHSAA would do what most other states do and put the private schools in different classifications than public schools, Lakewood Ranch might be hoisting another state title to go along with the 2003 championship.
But the FHSAA is a political entity. Private schools make up its membership and have done everything in their power to keep things status quo in this matter.
Private schools can get players from anywhere. Some don't take advantage of that luxury while others abuse it. The results can be seen in schools that dominate beyond logical expectations.
The Mustangs don't have any potential first-round draft picks from outside the area knocking down their doors. And when they groom their own kids, there is a danger some entity will try to gobble them up.
The Lakewood Ranch baseball team did what it did with what it had. The Mustangs won the hearts of their fans, which is more valuable than the trophy the FHSAA hands out to the team that scores the most runs in the final game.
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2112.