Top 2021 Sports

Stories of the Year

By Ray Dimonda and Randy Lefko
Posted 12/29/21

McCrae ‘In-the-Park’ puts Panthers in Final FourORANGE PARK - Ridgeview High freshman third baseman Haylee McCrae saw her coach Casey Thompson windmilling his arm like an airplane …

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Top 2021 Sports

Stories of the Year


McCrae ‘In-the-Park’
puts Panthers in Final Four

ORANGE PARK - Ridgeview High freshman third baseman Haylee McCrae saw her coach Casey Thompson windmilling his arm like an airplane propeller when she hit second base and just sprinted for all she was worth to complete an exciting inside-the-park home run jaunt that vaulted her Lady Panthers to the Class 4A Final Four with a thrilling come-from-behind 6-5 region 1-4A championship win Friday night over Baker County High School at Ridgeview High School. Baker County was a region 1-5A finalist in 2019. Ridgeview was a Class 6A Final Four finisher in 2019.
“I told myself to layoff that first pitch and then went for it” said McCrea, who also created a walk-off single to beat Clay earlier in the season. “As I rounded first, I looked at Coach and just put it on autopilot. As I rounded second, I knew he was going to send me.”
In the Ridgeview vs. Baker County game, with a head first dive, McCrea looked up. “I ate the dirt a little bit, but I made it. I looked up and she didn’t have the ball. Right there I thought, we’re going to win this.”
McCrae’s heroic sprint tied the game after Baker County had built a seemingly unsurmountable 5-1 lead into the fateful seventh inning.
For Thompson, who will return to Final Four status for a second season in his short tenure as head coach, there was never a doubt his freshman was going to get the green light to be the hero, but the run simply tied the game at 5-5 after Ridgeview fell behind 5-1.
“It’s championship softball and I had to take a risk,” said an elated Thompson. “She’s not the fastest, but I think they underestimated her will to win and kind of took their time getting the ball back into play from the hit to right field.”
The dual error “in the park” homerun ignited an inferno of emotion in the dugout as the team knew they would at least get to play extra innings with the score tied at five. After the second out, eight pitches later, including four foul balls, another Haley; this one Haley Bartlett, walked to put the winning run on first base.
With nothing to lose with the tied game, it was all on the table when Giana Michel stepped into the batter’s box. On the first pitch, Bartlett stole second putting her firmly into scoring position. On a one strike, two ball count, Michel punched a shot to center field that scored Bartlett for the walk-off 6-5 win.
“The girls took it upon themselves in the middle of the fourth inning,” said Thompson after spotting Baker County a 5-1 lead. “They told me they were going to score at least three runs, and then then go and score four. These girls have hearts of champions. They never quit on themselves and they dug deep.”

Olympic Final: Dressel 3-for-3

With dominating performances in his two week visit to the Tokyo Olympics, Clay High swimmer Caeleb Dressel put to rest the question of how good he is in the pool with three individual gold medals, two relay gold medals and three new records; one world and Olympic in two events.
“I was just trying to enjoy the moment before I walked out to look at the Rings (Olympic Rings),” said Dressel, answering a press conference question on his momentary stop as he entered the arena before delivering a world record gold medal win in the 100 freestyle. “I don’t want to become immune to the moment because I’m used to the feeling that racing offers me because I’m used to it; competing at 2016, worlds. I just wanted to take hold of that moment and enjoy it.”
Along the way, Dressel, who unleashed his lethal starts in all of his races, dispatched a handful of challengers that included two defending Olympic champions with one; Australia’s Kyle Chalmers, attempting to defeat Dressel a second time in two Olympic finals, but unsuccessful.
Also, Dressel took care of business against a relative newcomer Romania’s David Popovici; a 16-year Dressel-like phenom, who was proclaimed to be a major challeger, but wound up a historical asterisk next to Dressel’s front-running dominance.
First, for Dressel, the world record; a 49.45 split to win the Olympic gold medal in the 100 butterfly despite a late charge from Russian Kristof Milak pushing Dressel at the finish with a runnerup split of 49.62. Dressel previously held the Olympic record at 49.71 as well as the world record for the event at 49.50.
“The pressure of the 100 freestyle was fine,” said Dressel, in a press conference after winning the 100 freestyle gold medal. “When you turn that pressure into stress, that’s when it becomes a problem. My first couple swims, I felt like I was not handling the stress. I started to find my groove in the 100 semifinal and final.”
Second, the Olympic record; a 47.02 finish in the 100 freestyle with a late challenge; this time from RIO defending champion Kyle Chalmers of Australia. The previous Olympic record was 47.05 from 2008.
Third, knocking out 2012 Olympic 50 free champion, 2016 Olympic 50 free runnerup Florent Manaudou of France, Dressel demolished the Olympic record of Carlos Cielo of Brazil; 21.30 in 2008, with a 21.07 split. Cielo still owns the world record of 20.95 from 2009. Dressel swam the 50 with no breaths.
In relays, Dressel latched on to two more golds with dramatic wins in the 4 x 100 free relay and the 4 x 100 medley relay. The medley relay, with anchor Zach Apple powering the final 100 freestyle, set a new world record to defeat Great Britain. Dressel torched the butterfly leg with a 49.0 split with a fast final 50 against Great Britain’s James Guy. Dressel’s 49.0 leg is the fastest ever 100 butterfly, but not a record because it was not the leadoff leg.

Rodriguez gets his gold; Hoskinson beats unbeaten

KISSIMMEE - Ridgeview High senior Matthew Rodriguez finally, after two runnerup finishes, got his gold medal while Clay High’s Cale Hoskinson, also a senior, faced off and beat an unbeaten opponent as both wrestlers won state titles Saturday in Kissimmee.
“Yes sir, it’s been a long journey,” said Rodriguez, twice a Class 1A runnerup after a third place as a freshman. “I’ve come close the past couple of years and I just touched it in my first try as a freshman. I knew it was going to be about how much I wanted to win it.”
For Hoskinson, third last year at 152 and 42-2 this season at 160, the championship match looked to be similar to Hoskinson’s battle with Robert E. Lee High’s 2020 state runnerup Ahmahd Denmark at the Clay Rotary as he faced off against unbeaten Terrell Taylor. 29-0 and fourth last year at 160. Denmark, third at 160 in 2A on Saturday, offered a muscular, athletic foe for Hoskinson that Hoskinson went into a bloodied overtime to defeat in the Clay Rotary final.
“He looked very similar to Ahmahd and I know that that match would be good for my confidence for the rest of the season,” said Hoskinson. “I just relied on my craft work and wrestled my guy.”
Clay coach Jim Reape noted that Hoskinson, now wrestling at Notre Dame College in Ohio, has faced off against few strong, athletic wrestlers in the past years and was set to take on Taylor in a good mindset.
“The Clay Rotary guy was just a big, strong kid with a lot of horsepower and Cale has wrestled the Camden County guy a bunch over the summer and he’s built the same way,” said Reape. “”He, and the Ridgeview guy, have both been laser focused on today.”
Rodriguez, who went the entire season without a point scored against him, scored pins of 17 seconds, 34 seconds and a third period flat to get to the final.
“All season, we have been working a lot on turning stall tactics to our advantage,” said Matthew Rodriguez, who finishes at 57-0 and has signed to continue wrestling at NCAA Div.I power Lehigh University. “I worked on the things I needed to get back to this place and finish. The two runnerup matches showed me some things I needed to be able to do to win and that was what we focused on.”
Also medaling from Clay County, Fleming Island got two fourths; from Hunter Herrington at 113 and from Hunter Williams at 195. Both lost to eventual state runnerups in their semifinal matches. Clay High got a sixth from Dominic Martin at 152 with a quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Darian Estevez of Somerset Academy who finished at 42-1. Ridgeview 285 Derrick Mosley suffered an ankle injury and wrestled through to finish fourth.

Briley wins state lift title
in dominant fashion
KISSIMMEE - With a state record bench press, Oakleaf High senior Tamira Briley fulfilled the chatter about her running the table about district, region and state champion with a 15 pound win for the Class 3A 110-pound championship at the FHSAA championship weekend in Kissimmee and Live Oak.
“Having lifted 180 during the season, I kind of felt the pressure of having to have a big lift at the state meet,” said Briley, who now returns to the track for Oakleaf High School as a sprinter. “Me and coach (Ben White) knew we had to bench press enough to make the girl from Vero Beach (runnerup Sarah Eisworth) have to attempt a clean and jerk 30-40 pounds above her best.”
Briley, who had lifted 180 on the bench press during the season, which was a regular season best, cleared 175 on Saturday to lift the playoff record of 170 and give herself a 40 pound lead into the clean and jerk.
“She dominated,” said White. “Our entire two week preparation prior to the state meet was to make that girl from Vero Beach clean more than what we thought that she could do. We got up on her by 30 pounds. We could tell psychologically that Tamira was ready to roll. Tamira knew what the target was.”

Lady Spartans blast to 10th
title Spartan boys fall 4-0

DELAND - With barely enough time to work up a sweat, the St. Johns Country Day School girls soccer team bolted to a 2-0 lead within the first 90 seconds of play in their Class 2A championship game against Canterbury High en route to a 6-0 final score.
The title was the 10th in a row for the Lady Spartans and for coach Mike Pickett. Pickett now has 13 state titles.
“This season will always have an asterisk next to it because of all the adversity we went through to get here,” said Pickett. “We missed a good part of the season; a bunch of quality games and finished with just 13 regular season games. It is a testament to the 10 seniors on the team.”
In the ensuing Class 2A boys championship game, Canterbury returned the favor with a 4-0 win over St. Johns with the first half locked at 0-0.
With senior forward Paige Crews taking the opening kickoff and three Spartan midfielders; Mia Sadler, Bella Pontieri and Lauren Weiss, dashing down the sideline toward the Canterbury goal, St. Johns took just 15 seconds for Pontieri to spin left and loft a left-footed shot toward the front of the goal where Sadler finished off the play with a header to the net as the Canterbury stood stunned by the absolute speed of the ball from the 50 to the net.

Indians season over; 10-2

THE VILLAGES - In a clash of running backs; The Four Horsemen for Keystone Heights High football versus one very big one for The Villages Charter, the very big one from The Villages Charter prevailed as the Buffaloes scored a 34-6 region 2-4A semifinal win over the Indians on Friday at The Villages.
“It is what it is,” said senior running back Tyler Jenkins, who was able to pick up a few positive runs against the massive defensive front of The Villages to add to the Indians 163 yards of total offense. “Of course, not happy with this being the last game for me, but we had a great season and I think the guys put everything out there tonight.”
Keystone Heights’ running game averaged nearly 350 yards per game with senior Dalton Hollingsworth ranked as one of the top 10 ball carriers in Class 4A.
With the still-unbeaten Villages, now 11-0, advancing to the region final with top seed Cocoa, Keystone Heights High coach Chuck Dickinson reflected on what the football team’s season meant to the school.
“This is one of the groups that bought into everything we did for the team,” said Dickinson, who, in his 23rd year, finished with a 10-2 final season record. “We were getting a few big plays; maybe 10-12 yards, but then we could not sustain.”
Dickinson took the 14-0 halftime lead as proof that his outsized team came to play with a lot of grit.
“This team is the most unselfish team we have had in a long time and all the things they accomplished with the football season, boys weithtlifting state champions, and even one of the top track athletes in Florida made this bunch of kids very special at our small school,” said Dickinson.
At the game’s start, The Villages were intent on showing their prowess against the hard-hitting Keystone Heights team. On the opening kickoff, returner Jerremy Miller was rocked almost simultaneously as the ball came to him and the ensuing fumble recovery put the Villages on the field.
The Villages took little time in scoring, but from there the Indians’ tenacity prevailed as the quarter ended with the lone score; 7-0.
“We don’t give up, that’s what we do,” said senior running back Logan Williams, who was the fireplug for the Indians keeping some pressure on the Buffalo defense. “We were going to keep coming all game and we did. They got some big plays on us, but I don’t think it was a runaway.”
Keystone Heights scored in the second half off a pass play from quarterback Connor Guy to end Bryar Schenck.
On defense, Miller snagged an interception with 8:58 in the first quarter. Keystone Heights, starting at the Villages 47, opened with a nifty 21 yard pass play to Kade Sanders out of the backfield. The play ignited the Indians’ fans, but a three yard loss and a six yard sack pushed the ball backward.
With fourth down and 17 at the Villages 29, Keystone Heights had a prime opportunity to answer the quick score for the Buffaloes, but Guy, with a strong headwind sweeping the field, threw behind Sanders who again snuck out of the backfield and found open grass.
Villages took over on downs and running back Ed Williams, a 215-pound bruiser, finished off with a one yard score at 1:10 to halftime. Williams ran for 100 yards in the first half.
In the third period, with Villages getting the kickoff and Williams blasting for nine yards on his first carry, strong defense from Caleb Moncrief and Trey Jeffries got two stops for losses and a quarterback sack before Villages quarterback Brandon Kennard hit two passes in a row; one a 32 yarder, the final a strike to end Q Kennedy to push the score to 21-0 at 7:59 of the third. Kennedy caught a second touchdown pass on the next Villages possession to score the game 27-0 with 2:39 left in the third.
Just before the end of the third, Guy rolled out right and found Schenk in the end zone for the Indians’ lone score.
For the season, Keystone Heights finished at 9-1 in regular season action the lone loss on the season finale to P.K. Yonge. The Indians beat Umtilla 50-0 in their region playoff opener to advance to the region semifinal with Villages. For the region, Villages advances to take on Cocoa, a 41-0 winner over South Sumter. The winner will play with winner of Bolles versus South Walton in the Class 4A state Final Four.

Stratton gets his XC gold

TALLAHASSEE - After a third and a second place finish and a slew of top five finishes this year against the best of Class 3A and 4A, St. Johns Country Day School senior cross country ace Matthew Stratton finally got his gold with a dominating performance at the Class 1A championship race on Saturday in Tallahassee.
“Finally is what we both said after I met up with him at the finish line,” said Greg Stratton, coach at St. Johns and Matthew’s dad. “He has been thinking about this day for more than just last year, but for all those year we just missed.”
Stratton, who recently signed to run next fall at the University of Florida, noted that his post season runs; a district title and a region title; both in dominating fashion with low 15 minute-plus finish times, came at a peak time when his mind has been most relaxed.
“I went out there and my time at the mile was 4:41 and, in past years, I may have panicked, but today, I just went with it as the weather was perfect and I was feeling really great,” said Stratton, who eventually cruised alone into the downhill finish area at the Appalachee Region Park finish area with a time of 15 minutes, 40.2 seconds to win by nearly 13 seconds over runnerup Jackson Dejesus of Circle Christian Academy and third place finisher Tristan McWilliam of Out-of-Door who came in as the third runner under 16 minutes. “I look behind me on the finish straightaway and saw I had the race and that is when I started to get emotional about finally winning this race.”
After his opening mile salvo, Stratton kept his foot on the gas and just stretched the lead little by little.
“I figured now they have to come get me and I know I have a strong finishing kick,” said Stratton. “The past two years, I’ve waited to kick the final mile and fell short, but this time I wanted to make sure.”

Lowery tagged as state
weightlifting coach of year

Keystone Heights High School boys weightlifting coach Lantz Lowery was named the 2021 Boys’ Weightlifting Coach-of-the-Year while Winter Springs High senior Marvin Collins was selected as the winner of the 2021 Florida Dairy Farmers Mr. Weightlifting award, in a press release from the Florida Dairy Farmers.
“I think the key was that we had a bunch of weight classes with two or three guys having to compete just to be the two guys that would be able to go to tournaments,” said Lowery. “There was not a sense of being the best guy in a single weight class without having someone real close pushing you to keep sharp. On a good day, we had a lot of third guys that could be number two before a meet.”
Lowery was selected as the 2021 Boys’ Weightlifting Coach-of-the-Year after leading Keystone Heights to the Class 1A state title, the school’s first since 2014. The team had eight place winners, including 139-pound champion Zach Glover and 169-pound champion Kade Sanders, in scoring 37 points. Lowery, in his 16th season at Keystone Heights, was coach for the 2014 state champion team as well.

Fleming Island girls golf
oh, so close to state bid

GAINESVILLE - Fleming Island High girls golf coach Brian Nedrich encouraged his five golfers heading to the region 1-3A championship match on the Monday after a homecoming Friday weekend to just be ready to play a tough match on Monday.
“They were ready and they came through,” was Nedrich’s response after his girls team, led by freshman district champion Alyzabeth Morgan’s top team score, finished fifth team at the region 1-3A championships behind a cadre of state powerhouses; Niceville, Lake Mary, Bartram Trail and Ponte Vedra. “Now we wait.”
Nedrich’s anticipation of a good decision on Tuesday night, maybe Wednesday night, is in lieu of the top three finishers get team invites to the state tournament while at-large bids go out to top teams off the top three from around the state.
“My gut says we are going to state which would be a first,” said Nedrich, noting former coach Gary Anderson had state teams in 2013, 2014, 2015. “It’s all based on the strength of course kind of stuff, level of competition and some computer stuff. Either way, I’m super proud of this team.”
Morgan, who stormed to a district title last week, led the Fleming Island girls with a three over par 75 in her usual strong, steady style of play.
Unfortunately, because of the strength of the region, neither Morgan nor the team advanced to the state tournament.

Battle of Titans II: Fleming
Island beats SJCDs

ORANGE PARK - At first glance, the titanic battle between Fleming Island High and St. Johns Country Day School baseball, arguably in the top five of Florida baseball all classes, looked to becoming a 12-13 inning pitch fest between Cody Carwile and Brad Hodges with 11 strikeouts in the first two innings between the two flamethrowers.
Ironically, and possibly prophetic, both teams finished their respective season as state runnerups; Class 6A for Fleming Island, Class 2A for St. Johns.
“We knew they were coming off a big weekend in south Florida against some power teams and they were keyed up for this game,” said Fleming Island coach Grant Bigilin.
Fortunately, for baseball fans, the excitement of a no-hit, no-runs slinging contest did not materialize as Fleming Island took a mid-game lead, then nearly let it slip away en route to a 5-3 win Monday night at St. Johns Country Day School.
St. Johns answered the comeback call in the two-run homer by Finn Howell in the fifth, but left baserunners stranded in the seventh.
“I tip my hat to Fleming Island, they outplayed us,” said St. Johns coach Tom Lucas. “We struck out 13 times and you don’t win big games doing that.”
A well-executed bunt by Fleming Island’s Angelo Scionti in the third triggered a crack in the demeanor of Hodges as the Golden Eagles’ batting lineup jumped on Scionti’s success with a Justin Lebesch single and a walk to Aiden Mastantuno to load the bases for Marcus Murray’s sliced single and a two-run double from Jack Gidcumb to centerfield to fire up a 3-0 lead.


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