Austin Brinling, a cornerstone of the Thunder baseball team for the past four seasons, was one of six scholar-athletes to make his collegiate intentions official Wednesday at the Petrik Thunderdome. The lightning-quick center fielder will move on next year to play for the Florida Gators, one of the NCAA’s perennial powers.
“If I didn’t go to school here, I don’t think I would have gotten the chance to go to Florida,” Brinling said. “The coaches here helped me so much with my hitting and fielding.”
Brinling credits the Thunder baseball staff, led by coach Tim Orlosky.
“I was already a good player, but they turned me into a smart player,” Brinling said. “That’s what you really need if you want to go play college baseball.”
As a junior last spring, Brinling batted .467 and led the team in doubles, triples, stolen bases and fielding percentage. Everything about him, including his physical appearance, screams prototype leadoff hitter.
“I get on base often,” Brinling said. “I make contact.”
Becoming a Gator has been on Brinling’s mind ever since he can remember.
“Growing up I’ve always loved the University of Florida,” the Bradenton resident said. “I always used to watch their games as a kid. I would watch Tim Tebow and all those guys play on the football field.
“Once I started to fall in love with baseball, I started watching their baseball games. I saw how awesome they were on the field. I dreamed about being a part of that.”
Madisyn Opstal, in the midst of her final season as a leader on the Thunder soccer team, is bound for Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to attend Wake Forest University. She, too, gives much of the credit for her bright future to her current school.
“I’ve been at ODA since the eighth grade,” Opstal said. “It’s been an amazing experience. I’ve had the best time in high school here. I’ve had so much support from my teachers.
“The athletic factor has been great. I’ve played for Coach Bill (Unzicker) for four years now. He’s been awesome. This place is really special to me.”
Opstal also considered several schools, including the University of Miami and Syracuse, which, like Wake Forest, also compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“It came down to like five or six schools in the end, but after my official and unofficial visits to Wake, I kind of felt like it was the place for me,” she said. “The coaches and teammates are like one big family. It’s going to be awesome having a family while I’m away from home.
“The ACC is like the best conference for women’s soccer. Plus, it being one of best academic schools was huge.”
A pair of ODA swimmers, who will be competing in the Class 1A State Championships on Friday in Stuart, are both headed for Boston next year, but to different colleges.
Zach Szmania, a regional champion who has been swimming for the Thunder since sixth grade, is bound for Boston College.
Thunder teammate Sarsen Whatmore, a four-time state qualifier, will swim downstream at Boston University.
“I thought about Boston University and Sarsen thought about Boston College,” Szmania explained. “In the end, it just worked out that way.
“We’ll be swimming against each other a couple of meets each year. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll be close to my friend.”
Also, Caroline Lafoe, who has played lacrosse for ODA the past five years, announced she would be attending Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Thunder baseball pitcher Austen Kessler made official that he will attend State College of Florida.
A dozen Indians announce collegiate intentions
VENICE — It could be said Wednesday’s National Signing Day ceremony at Venice High School was a celebration of the success of the successful sports programs during the past year.
Four baseball players from last year’s Class 8A state champion baseball team, four members of last year’s Class 8A volleyball state champions, a champion swimmer and other award winners were among the dozen students who made their college commitments official in front of a good crowd inside The Teepee.
Orion Kerkering, who Venice baseball coach Craig Faulkner said is one of the best pitchers ever to take the mound for Indians, signed his letter of intent to attend the University of South Florida. Kerkering said that his visit to the school went so well that he called two hours after it was over to commit to the Bulls.
“I loved their pitching aspects because I’m more of a strikeout pitcher and that’s what (USF head coach Billy) Mohl is all about,” said Kerkering,
who plans on majoring in either business or engineering. “We just really connected with our way of pitching instead of watching our arm. This was the easiest choice for me since it’s so close. It’s just perfect for me.”
Danny Rodriguez is headed to Florida Gulf Coast University as a pitcher, where he’ll be joined by Venice teammate Clayton Callan. Indians’ infielder Kevin Dubrule is heading to Army after talking to a few different schools.
“It was the first offer that I got and it provides me the opportunity to follow my dreams of going into the military,” Dubrule said. “It’s obviously one of the most prestigious schools in the nation. I’m going to try and hold my own with the best and it provides me with a lot of great opportunities.”
Venice volleyball teammates Carley Faulkner and Caitlin Montgomery — starters on the 2017 state title team — firmed up their commitments to head to Wingate University in North Carolina. Tessa Bohn, a libero on that title team, will join the Navy.
Paradise Gibson, an outside hitter for the Indians, will go to Stetson to play beach volleyball.
Aja Jones may have been a newcomer to Venice volleyball this year after transferring from Manatee High, but she learned quickly that Brian Wheatley was her favorite coach and she wanted to find a place that had a similar style. That led to her to choose Florida Gulf Coast University after receiving more than a dozen offers.
“I knew as soon as I stepped on the campus and met the coach that it was the place for me,” Jones said of Eagles’ coach Matt Botsford. “I took the tour just to do it ... and I ended up falling in love with it.”
Kristen Nutter won the state championship in the 100 Fly as a junior and had another strong performance in last week’s Class 3A state meet. She considered joining her brother at SMU, but a visit to the Commodores in Tennessee changed her outlook.
“I had a trip planned to go to Boston College, but once I went to Vanderbilt I loved it there,” Nutter said. “It’s a combination of great athletics in the SEC and academics.”
Sarasota Crew rowers Bethany Newcomb and Christina Strates also signed their letters of intent at Wednesday’s ceremony.
Newcomb is headed to Louisville. Strates will be rowing for the University of Miami.
A number of area baseball players also are taking their talents to Division 1 schools: Cardinal Mooney’s Paul Labriola (Clemson), Lakewood Ranch’s Grant McCray (Florida State), Lemon Bay’s Brandon Gielow (Tennessee), Palmetto’s Harrison Thiel (Georgia Tech) and Ty Hooks (Winthrop) and Sarasota’s Harrison Long (Jacksonville) and Jack Duffy (Central Florida).
HTPreps Swimmer of the Year Ryley Ober of Bayshore will continue competing at Indiana University.
Scott Lockwood contributed to this report.