Though I didn’t start covering Venice High sports full-time until the end of May in 2018, I was still able to witness some impressive athletic accomplishments this year.
The baseball team brought home its fifth state title in an extra-innings battle, the boys swim team won its first-ever state championship, and both the football and volleyball teams finished the year as regional champions once again after playing against the best teams in the state.
From the individual stories of teamwork and success to the hardware that was added to the VHS trophy case, there’s a lot to remember about 2018, but here are the games that stuck out to me in my first year on the job.
Baseball team takes title in extra-innings
In my first week as sports editor, the Indians were headed down to Fort Myers to play in the Final Four at Hammond Stadium.
Though I had spent the spring covering area teams such as Charlotte, Lemon Bay, North Port and Port Charlotte, I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to watch the Indians (24-8) yet.
Right away, it was clear they were a special team. Venice was the only team to mercy-rule its opponent in the Final Four, knocking off Doral Academy of Miami, 11-1 in 4 ½ innings.
However, the state championship game against Pace High School would be another story.
While the Indians wound up winning, 3-1 in nine innings, it took a roller-coaster of emotions and some head-scratching moments to get there.
With ace pitcher Orion Kerkering unavailable due to pitching a complete game in the semifinals, pitchers Danny Rodriguez and Reece Jackowiak stepped up for Venice. The two pitchers held Pace to just one run in a game in which the Indians offense produced only one run until the ninth inning.
Tied at 1-1 in extra-innings, Pace tried to send out pitcher Christian McCollough, who had reached his pitch count the prior day. But Pace had waited until after midnight struck to bring in the pitcher, believing the signaling of a new calendar day meant McCollough was eligible to pitch again.
After a 30 minute discussion between FHSAA officials, McCollough was ruled ineligible.
However, none of it mattered as Rodriguez and Aidan Corn scored off back-to-back singles to open the ninth to the raucous approval of hundreds of Venice fans who made the trip down.
With all of the drama, rules discussions, and winning in extra-innings, Venice baseball’s win over Pace was one of the best games of the year.
Football team comes back against Braden River
Obviously district and regional championships are important to football teams, but the best football game of the season in my opinion took place during the regular season.
Though the district was far from settled, it was clear that whoever won the Sept. 28 meeting between Venice (12-2) and Braden River would be on the fast track to a district title.
And it wasn’t necessarily what was at stake, but how the Indians fought back that made the game impressive.
Trailing 14-10 with hardly any time left in the third quarter, lightning struck within 10 miles of the school and the game was delayed nearly two hours.
When the Indians came back to the field, they seized the opportunity.
Venice blocked a Braden River field goal attempt on the first play out of the delay, and the comeback was on.
Quarterback Hayden Wolff was much more poised after the break, rolling out on a 3rd and 13 to find receiver Zack Sessa in the end zone from 28 yards out. And though the Pirates would answer back, Indians running back Brandon Gregory gave his team all it would need for the win when he broke through the middle of the field for a 53-yard touchdown run to the delight of fans who weathered the storm.
Though the stakes weren’t that high, there’s little more thrilling to watch than a come-from-behind win in a heated rivalry.
Swim team cleans up at 3A meet
I personally couldn’t be there to watch Venice take home its first-ever state title due to covering the football team in the playoffs, but Sun correspondent Stephen McKay was there to capture the story.
From the results, it’s clear that the Indians were a special team.
Along with blowing teams out of the water throughout the season, Venice had five individuals earn gold medal finishes in a historic season for the swim team.
Coach Jana Minorini and boys swimmer Arik Katz were named the 3A Coach of the Year and 3A Boys Swimmer of the Year, respectively, for their efforts this season.
“I can barely think right now, I’m so proud of these guys,” said a jubilant Minorini at the state meet. “I wasn’t really thinking whether or not we could do this at the beginning of the season, but a lot of the guys said they thought they could bring enough to state to compete for the title. They worked for it and made it come true.”
Volleyball team takes Oviedo to five
Though this was one of the few matches the Lady Indians didn’t win this season, it came against some of the best competition in the state, if not the nation.
With 10 players being honored for Senior Night at the TeePee for the final regular season home game, the night was special for the Lady Indians before the volleyball match even began.
Playing in front of a packed house that was nearly bouncing up and down for pre-game introductions, it couldn’t have been a better atmosphere for 10 Lady Indians to wrap up their high school careers.
Venice (25-6) dropped the first set, 25-23, in a nail-biter and then found themselves in a 2-1 hole two sets later.
Using strong blocking at the net from the likes of Aja Jones and Carley Faulkner, the Indians adjusted to some of the Lions play to tie the match at 2-2 and force a fifth set.
Though Venice would briefly lead, Oviedo closed it out strong with a 15-5 finish in the final set.
Despite the loss, coach Brian Wheatley and his team took it in stride, knowing that the loss didn’t much matter in the grand scheme of things with playoffs still to come.
There’s much more on the horizon for Venice athletics, with none of its coaches showing signs of slowing down any time soon.
The Spring season sports such as baseball, softball, boy’s volleyball, track, tennis, lacrosse and water polo will all begin soon and the Winter sports like basketball and soccer still have to wrap up.
With a nationally ranked girls soccer team, and another strong baseball team returning, it wouldn’t be shocking if I’m covering another state or regional champion here in the next couple of months.
After a year of state titles and inspiring stories from VHS athletes, more of the same from the Indians wouldn’t surprise me in 2019.