It was a historic year for area athletes.
For the first time since the 2017-2018 school year, the East County area saw a high school team championship win in 2020-2021 — and not one, but two.
Combined with another track and field individual gold medal, this school year has been the most successful for area sports programs in some time. The non-championship moments provided almost as many thrills. There were memories made this school year that will never be forgotten by the athletes or their fans.
Here are the top 10 stories of the East County high school sports year.
1. Lakewood Ranch softball wins first state championship
After years of regular season success paired with close playoff losses, the Lakewood Ranch softball team finally put it all together.
The 2021 Mustangs were tasked with replacing eight seniors from the 2020 team who now play NCAA Division I softball. If the team took a step backward, no one would have been surprised. Instead, the Mustangs played as well as ever, going 25-2 in the regular season and seeing themselves consistently ranked in the top five nationally by USA Today and MaxPreps.
When sophomore pitcher Olivia Laney began suffering from arm soreness before the team's regional quarterfinal game against Steinbrenner High, it seemed like luck was again not on Lakewood Ranch's side, but the team rallied behind junior Ella Coiner — who only started pitching regularly in September — and the team's potent offense carried it to the state tournament.
Once there, the outcome was never in doubt. The Mustangs scored 31 runs in the tournament's two games, including a six-inning 14-4 win against Park View High, then ranked No. 5 nationally by USA Today, on May 22 in the championship game in Clermont.
It was the school's first softball state championship as well as the first for any Manatee County school.
2. ODA baseball wins first state title
The first year under Coach Mike Matthews could not have ended better for The Out-of-Door Academy baseball program.
The Thunder used a versatile offense and steady pitching to earn a regular season record of 17-3. They averted danger in the playoffs, including a 10-7 comeback win against Canterbury on May 12 that saw the Thunder score six runs in the seventh inning.
At the state tournament, ODA was seen as the underdog. That didn't matter to the Thunder. ODA defeated Trinity Christian Academy 5-2 in the state semifinals May 19, then beat St. Johns Country Day 5-3 the next day in the championship game. It was the Thunder's first baseball state title.
3. Lakewood Ranch High track and field star wins shot put title
Lakewood Ranch senior Riley Simmons spent the last two years getting ready for this year's state track and field meet, held May 7-8 at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
Simmons finished eighth (38 feet, 8.25 inches) in the girls shot put at the 2019 meet as a sophomore, and since then has dedicated herself to getting stronger. She would have been a contender for the 2020 state title, but the meet was canceled out of COVID-19 concerns, so 2021 was her one and only shot.
Her state meet performance did not disappoint. Simmons won the shot put with a throw of 44 feet, 3.25 inches.
4. ODA football reaches SSAC title game
After a winless, shortened regular season (0-5), the ODA football program made a surprise run in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference playoffs, including a 37-26 road win against Cedar Creek Christian on Nov. 13.
The Thunder would lose 20-19 to Bishop Snyder High (6-5) in the state championship game, held Nov. 21 in Lakeland, but even reaching that point was impressive after the team's rough start.
5. O'Mariah Gordon caps historic high school career
Braden River High senior girls basketball guard O'Mariah Gordon battled an injury in 2021 that contributed to the Pirates' early playoff exit, but the future Florida State Seminole left behind a career worthy of the record books.
The two-time Gatorade Florida Player of the Year gave a final goodbye to area fans at the 2021 Manatee-Sarasota All-Star Game, held April 8 at Bradenton Christian. Her most impressive moment came in the three-point competition, when Gordon first won the girls' division by hitting 18 shots in 60 seconds, then defeated the boys champion — Southeast High's Galen Washington — by hitting 13 shots in 60 seconds. Her victory sent the crowd into a frenzy.
6. Braden River sprinters land in top eight of 100 meter dash
Braden River High boys track and field seniors Josh Thomas (10.60 seconds) and Miles Stephens (10.66) finished fourth and fifth in the Class 3A 100 meter dash at the 2021 state track and field meet, held May 7-8 in Jacksonville.
Even though neither runner won the event, placing as high as they did is an accomplishment for the area, which typically produces top distance runners, not sprinters. Entering 2021, no East County boys runner had finished in the top eight of the event since Braden River High opened in 2005.
7. Lakewood Ranch golfers finish top-20 at state tournament
Mustangs senior girls golfer Ashleigh Angelo finished tied for 17th at the state tournament, held Oct. 30-31 at the Mission Inn Resort and Club in Howey-in-the-Hills. Angelo shot 74-76 (150) over the event's two days, finishing nine strokes behind champion Jacqueline Putrino of Riverview High.
She wasn't the only Mustang who found success that weekend. Junior boys golfer Tim Williamson finished tied for 19th, shooting 75-78 (153), 12 strokes behind champion James Hassell of Vero Beach High.
8. Braden River beach volleyball finishes high at state tournament
The 2021 Braden River High beach volleyball team was adept at overcoming the odds.
The Pirates entered the Sunshine State Athletic Conference play-in tournament as the final seed. They won the consolation side of the bracket at the April 21 event, qualifying for the state tournament, held April 30-May 1 in Tavares, in the process.
The Pirates were the final seed in the state tournament, too. That didn't matter to them. Braden River would finish fifth at the tournament, their third-straight season of finishing in the top five.
9. Braden River football reaches regional semifinals
Braden River High went 3-3 in a shortened regular season, but the Pirates were close to much more than that. Only one of their losses was by more than a touchdown, the seasoning-opening 35-21 road loss to Charlotte High on Sept. 18. Coach Curt Bradley and the Pirates believed they were capable of being great.
They showed potential in the first round of the playoffs, beating South Fork High 49-9 on the road.
The next week, the Pirates would lose to Lake Gibson High 56-49 on the road after leading by 14 points twice. It was a disappointing end, but the South Fork win will stand as a testament to Braden River's talent.
10. Krug twins sign with Duke University
Lakewood Ranch boys tennis players Connor and Jake Krug, high school seniors who participate in virtual schooling, signed with Duke University on Nov. 14. The Krugs, who are twins, make up the entirely of Duke's incoming class, ranked 16th nationally by TennisRecruiting.net.
The twins, grandsons of Dick Vitale, said they never considered going to separate schools. They have been doubles partners for so long, and with so much success, they did not want to give that up. Duke was a place where they could do that.
The Krugs played for The Out-of-Door Academy on the school's state champion 2018 team before switching to virtual schooling.