Once again in 2018, East County athletes showed they could make an impact on both the local and national levels.
It ran the gamut from youth to adult athletes. Here is a look at 10 moments that captured our attention.
10 — Pirates girls basketball wins first district crown
The Braden River High girls basketball team was graced with a talented class of newcomers last season, and those freshman (and one sophomore) helped the Pirates do something the program had never done. Win a district title.
The Pirates defeated Sarasota High 89-58 on Feb. 9 to take the Class 8A District 11 crown. The win led to the Pirates’ first appearance in the regional tournament, where their season ended in a 76-72 home loss to North Port High on Feb. 16.
Braden River finished the year 20-7 after winning seven games over the previous three seasons combined. The Pirates were sparked by three newcomers, freshman guards O’Mariah Gordon and Cheyenne Stubbs and sophomore wing Julia Rodriguez, a transfer from Riverview High. All three girls played for the same AAU team, the Florida Future, and brought with them an innate chemistry.
Pirates coach Kristin Fulmer stepped down after the season to pursue non-sports opportunities, but under new coach Stephanie Smith, the Pirates will look to advance even farther in 2019.
9 — Lakewood Ranch High boys soccer wins earns sixth-straight district title
It came on a night when the Lakewood Ranch boys soccer team felt it didn’t play to its standards, but it came nonetheless.
The Mustangs won their sixth-straight Class 5A District 8 title on Feb. 2, a 3-2 victory over Riverview High. The program is the first in Lakewood Ranch history to accomplish the six-peat.
In a "grind-it-out" game, the Mustangs did enough to survive, getting a first half goal from junior midfielder Josh Hays and second half goals from sophomore defender Cade Schwarz and senior midfielder Aystin Martinez. Hays also recorded two assists.
Mustangs coach Vito Bavaro said the sixth district title feels just as good as the first, and if anyone says different, “they’re lying.”
8 — Lakewood Ranch Little League takes District 26 title
When the Lakewood Ranch Little League All-Star Majors team (ages 11-12) played the Buffalo Creek Little League team for District 26 supremacy on June 28, the first of a best-of-three series, Lakewood Ranch's pool of talent was evident.
Catcher Andy Schroeder got things started with a two-run homer in the first inning and pitcher Jacob Traeger constantly blew away hitters with his fastball. Lakewood Ranch right fielder Lochlan Radloff threw out a Buffalo Creek hitter at first base on what normally would have been a single. Everyone on Lakewood Ranch's team seemed to have the ability to take the extra base.
All along the way, Lakewood Ranch's players oozed with passion. In the fourth inning, center fielder Mason Woolever made a diving catch as he went into the outfield wall. Woolever sprinted off the field like his catch had just saved the World Series. His teammates mobbed him with high fives and body slams.
Lakewood Ranch would win 9-1, and eventually take the series in three games to win the District 26 crown. The team would finish second in the state’s Section 4 tournament in July.
7 — ODA teacher takes eighth at CrossFit Games
It’s one thing to start competing in CrossFit. It’s another to qualify for the CrossFit Games and finish in the top-10. That’s what Lakewood Ranch resident and The Out-of-Door Academy teacher Cici Fougere did this year, and looking at her background, it’s even more remarkable.
Fougere’s daily routine in 2011 consisted mainly of taking naps and watching television. She lived in South Hamilton, Mass., at the time, and after raising two daughters, Brooke and Madison Fougere, she found herself in a bad place. The former gymnast was riddled with anxiety and suffering from hypoglycemia. She ate poorly and would often not leave her house all day.
“I had a hard time getting through the day,” Fougere said.
Then a friend, Kathleen Tully, suggested Fougere try CrossFit. It was fun, Tully told her, and combined lots of exercises, so she would never get bored.
Fougere’s gymnastic background would help, too. Ready to get out of her funk, Fougere agreed to a two-week trial at CrossFit Wicked.
She never looked back. Fougere, who now trains with CrossFit 941, finished eighth in the Women’s 50-54 division at the 2018 CrossFit Games in Madison, Wis. Her commitment to the sport paid off long before the Games, when Fougere started feeling like herself again, but her performance in Madison proved to everyone that Fougere was a serious competitor.
6 — Mustangs softball reaches final four
Lakewood Ranch High softball did not simply reach the state semifinals.
They did it in dominating fashion with a 9-2 win against Plant City High on May 11 in the state quarterfinals. Plant City was the team that had knocked the Mustangs out of the playoffs in 2017. Lakewood Ranch defeated Plant City behind four RBIs from sophomore third baseman Taylor Woodring and a two-run homer from sophomore outfielder Avery Goelz.
Senior outfielder Olivia Danko said beating Plant City was “the greatest feeling ever,” and that getting revenge for the loss in 2017 meant the world to her and the team.
The Mustangs would lose to Oakleaf High 1-0 in the semifinals, despite out-hitting Oakleaf 7-3. Lakewood Ranch finished the season 24-5, and despite not achieving its ultimate goal, the program proved it is an elite program on a state level.
5 — Lakewood Ranch boys swimmer takes second at state meet
It was a step up, even if it wasn’t quite the step he wanted.
Lakewood Ranch senior boys swimmer Sebastian Aguirre finished second at the Class 3A meet in the 100-yard butterfly (50.27), 0.21 seconds behind gold medalist Juan Zapata, a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas. Aguirre improved on his finish as a junior, when he took fifth, by 0.46 seconds.
On Sept. 15, Aguirre set the 100 butterfly record (50.82) at the Tarpon Invite in Punta Gorda, crushing the previous meet record of 52.44 set by Venice High’s Mark Cox in 2008. Cox would also take the event’s silver medal that season.
Even though Aguirre didn’t take gold, he did accomplish his goal of dropping time.
4 — Knowledge McDaniel returns after suspension by FHSAA
The loudest crowd of the year was not at a state championship game, but a regular season football game, when Braden River High hosted Manatee High.
The Pirates' faithful thundered when senior wide receiver Knowledge McDaniel — previously ruled ineligible by the Florida High School Athletic Association after an investigation into Braden River athletics found McDaniel received “impermissible benefits” — took the field for warm-ups. They did so again when he was announced as a team captain. When he caught his first pass, a 31-yard touchdown from senior quarterback Bryan Gagg, the intensity increased.
McDaniel finished with 133 total yards (87 receiving and 46 rushing) and two touchdown catches.
"It felt good, man," McDaniel said of getting to play. "I was happy to be back with my team. I felt good about the game. I was more excited than (all of) Manatee."
Appeals allowed McDaniel to eventually play in seven games, finishing with 436 receiving yards, 163 rushing yards and 14 combined touchdowns.
The Pirates missed his presence in the playoffs, when their season again ended against Venice High, this time losing 28-21. But McDaniel made the most of his tumultuous senior season, a fitting cap on a tremendous career.
3 — ODA tennis teams win state 1A titles
The Out-of-Door Academy boys tennis put its stamp on history on May 1, winning the Class 1A state title 4-0 over Tampa Prep.
Twin ninth graders Jake and Connor Krug took charge for the Thunder, with Jake downing Tampa Prep's Omar Hamzah (6-1, 6-1) in his matchup and Connor beating Rory Kemm (6-3, 6-0). They also won the boys doubles title (6-1, 6-2) over Kemm and Bryce Guenther.
The Thunder had beaten the Miami Country Day School 5-0 earlier in the day. ODA lost in the first round of the tournament in 2017 and 2016, but this year reached the summit.
On the girls side, the Thunder's Ava Krug and Sydney Sforzo won the Class 1A girls doubles individual bracket, beating Trinity Prep's Samantha DeMaio and Sammy Miller 6-7 (5), 6-4, 10-7.
The titles are the school’s first since Maria Ross won the girls individual and doubles (with Mary Ann Rompf) titles in 2014. It was the first team title in school history.
2 — Pirates wrestler wins program's first-ever title
Braden River High senior wrestler Brendan Bengtsson (44-4) had seven days to get right before the March 3 state wrestling tournament at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee.
Seven days to get over his loss to North Fort Myers High's Adolphus Taylor in the Class 2A, 285-pound regional final. Seven days to rewire his mental game and train harder than he ever has.
He made them count, and it showed at the state tournament.
Bengtsson toppled every challenge in his way, culminating with an 8-0 major decision over finals opponent Carter Harris of Harmony High. Bengtsson almost had Harris pinned, but he wriggled free. He laughed about it after the match, saying that heavyweights aren’t easy to pin, and that Harris was a “tank.”
Once the match was decided, Bengtsson scrambled to the coach’s area and hoisted assistant coach Christian Sharbono in the air. He then gave head coach Nick Balde a bone-rattling embrace.
After finishing second in 2017, Bengtsson was finally a state champion.
1 — Three East County athletes take track and field gold
May 5 was a special day for three East County athletes, who each took home a gold medal from the FHSAA Track and Field Championships in Jacksonville.
Although the Class 4A girls pole vault wasn't technically over, Lakewood Ranch senior Karen Kay Lyvers knew it was all but finished after she cleared 11 feet, 9 inches. A few minutes later, she was proven correct when Winter Park High junior Elizabeth Nix failed to clear it. Lyvers was the champion.
She wasn't done, though. Continuing to compete against herself, Lyvers cleared 12 feet, 4 inches, tying her personal record, before she failed to clear a 12-foot, 9 inch bar.
It was a day Lyvers, who started pole vaulting last season, has been anticipating since the beginning of the year. Before the state championships, she held the top individual jump in the state (12 feet, 4 inches), regardless of classification, set at the regional meet. Nothing about her own performance surprised her.
That didn't make it any less sweet.
On the track, The Out-of-Door Academy freshman Saraiah Walkes blazed through the competition in the Class 1A girls 100-meter dash (12.18 seconds).
It wasn't the easiest season for Walkes. An ankle injury suffered in February sidelined Walkes for a month, causing her to miss the IMG Academy Invitational on March 17, one of the biggest "tune-up" races of the season. A groin injury persisted all season, not keeping her out of races but slowing her down. It flared again after the 100-meter race on Saturday, limited her effectiveness in the 200- and 400-meter races.
Considering the circumstances, Walkes was pleased with how her day went.
Also happy was Lakewood Ranch junior James Rivera, who made up for a seventh-place finish in the Class 4A 110-meter hurdles with a win in the 300-meter hurdles (37.14) from the outside lane.
Rivera becomes the second member of his family to win gold at the state championships, following his brother John Rivera Jr., who won the 4A boys 800 and the 4A 4x800 relay for the Mustangs in 2017. James Rivera said he did not talk to his brother before the day began, but that he knew he was watching the events online, and that he'd be James' first phone call once given time to soak in the victory.