Lakewood Ranch sports scene should generate lots of excitement in 2024

Let's talk about exciting sport scene in Lakewood Ranch! 

The 2024 East County sports scene will continue to attract big-time national events while continuing to create excitement with local events, such as high school sports.

It is easy to take all the area has to offer for granted, but we should do our best to enjoy it while it lasts.

It's a great sports community with diverse offerings, and there are plenty of events to write down on your calendars so you don't miss them.

The high school softball season begins Feb. 20. The big question: Can Lakewood Ranch softball rebound in 2024? 

The Mustangs went 16-11 and reached the Class 7A regional quarterfinals, but Lakewood Ranch is no ordinary program. The Mustangs won back-to-back state championships in 2021 and 2022, and had the talent to win another in 2020 if the season had not been canceled because of the pandemic. 

Under first-year Head Coach Taylor Gould, a Mustangs alumna, the team will try to get back to those lofty heights. Having senior pitcher Ella Dodge, a University of Tennessee signee, return for a final year on the mound will help. If some of the team's more inexperienced hitters build on their 2023 seasons, I think the team will have a shot. 

April 18-21, the Korn Ferry Tour's LECOM Suncoast Classic will return to Lakewood National Golf Club for the sixth iteration of the event. The 2023 event saw Scott Gutschewski take the trophy via a playoff hole win over 23-year-old Logan McAllister. The two golfers tied at 21 under par, and in the playoff, Gutschewski birdied the No. 18 hole from just off the green, forcing McAllister to do the same from an uphill angle. McAllister could not.

It seems like no matter what happens over the first few days, the Suncoast Classic always comes down to the final few holes. It makes for exciting action. I always look forward to seeing it happen up close. 

Will it be the only big golf tournament to come to the area in 2024? The Concession Golf Club General Manager Brian Weimann said the World Champions Cup could potentially return to the club for a second year, though nothing has been confirmed as of Dec. 19. Team USA caught Team International on the final two holes to win the inaugural event. Keep an eye on this one in the opening weeks and months of 2024 to hear whether it will be back. 

June 6-9 will see the return of the Youth Rowing Championships to Nathan Benderson Park. The 2023 event saw local club Sarasota Crew — which always has a handful of East County athletes — find success, with its  U17 men's 8+ team taking gold in the event's A final (6:07.85), crossing the finish line approximately one second before second-place RowAmerica Rye. The Crew's women's varsity 8+ boat finished fifth overall in the A final (6:41.30), approximately 13 seconds behind winner Marin Rowing Association. It was the first time the club even reached the finals in the event in nine years, so everyone was happy with the finish.

ODA grad Ada Giraldo, second from right, rows for the Sarasota Crew's women's varsity 8+ boat at the 2023 USRowing Youth National Championships.

Will more Crew history be made in 2024? Don't count it out. Also, from Jan. 4-16, you can catch the U.S. Rowing Paralympic Trials at Benderson Park, as the team picks national team rowers in the PR3 (rowers with residual function in the legs or athletes with vision impairment) mixed double sculls and the PR3 mixed four for the 2024 Paralympic Games, held Aug. 31-Sept. 1 in Paris.

The summer will also bring Little League All-Star baseball, which is always a good time. Not only do we have talented kids in the Lakewood Ranch area, but seeing the joy on their faces as they compete against other areas' best reminds me of my own Little League days. It's nostalgic for me.

The fall will see football season return. I'm interested in seeing how The Out-of-Door Academy follows its Sunshine State Athletic Association Class 4A championship win. The program will lose leaders like linebacker Charlie Tack and running back/wide receiver Jack Meyers to graduation, plus offensive linemen Blake Neumann and Blaine Bentley. However, it returns three other offensive lineman — current junior Chase Polivchak, junior Marvin Palominos and sophomore Max Polivchak — and sophomore running back Allen Clark, which means the team's potent ground game has a chance to keep rolling. 

The ODA football team will try to repeat as SSAA Class 4A champions in 2024.

Head Coach Rob Hollway is building a strong foundation at ODA, and I expect the Thunder to be contenders again in 2024. 

I'm also looking forward to getting to be surprised by stories from the community. At the beginning of 2023, I never expected to tell a story like that of Nicolas Dieter and Landen Chandler, two Braden River High junior varsity boys soccer players who are dealing with cancer by leaning on the sport they love, and on each other. It's a story that is heartbreaking and hopeful in equal measure. It was an honor to share their experiences with the community. 

Every year, stories like this find their way to me. I can't wait to see what stories I get to tell in 2024. 

For all of these reasons and more, the new year should bring another eclectic journey on the East County sports beat.

 Article provided by : Ryan Kohn : https://www.yourobserver.com/news/2023/dec/31/lakewood-ranch-sports-generate-excitement-2024/

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