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The show was great, but it’s time to cut the lights on the 2017-18 season

Posted on Friday, May 25, 2018 at 6:00 pm

Ken Jackson
The Sports Column

If the high school sports season is like a playhouse, then it’s time to bring up the lights and bring down the curtain.

But, like any good acting company, there will be plenty of rehearsals going on back stage over the summer before the doors swing back open in the fall.

So, how was the production? I give an ovation.

Lots of people say at this time of year, “Wow, where did the school year go? It just flew by. Feels like we just got started …”

Um, no it didn’t, and doesn’t. It felt like a long year to me, and not because it was bad or anything. On the contrary, there were a lot of accomplishments document, games to break down and many athletes to talk about who have been “doing it the right way.”

The review of the 2017-18 Osceola County athletic season reads like a Playbill book, with a cast of characters that led their teams to successful seasons — at least once we cleared the stage of debris from Hurricane Irma.

How successful? It seemed like multiple teams were always qualifying for the playoffs. In the team sports, the county had two boys basketball teams and three girls hoops squads (more on one of them later) make their way into the regionals, as well as two football teams, softball teams and baseball teams each, three boys volleyball clubs and two flag football teams.

Thanks to the City of Life girls basketball squad, the News-Gazette was able to continue its seemingly annual tradition of trekking to the HP Funding Center in Lakeland for the state basketball tournament. And, thanks to the Warriors, I finally got to write the, “Our team won it all!” story, as Coach Ray Buggs’ team of underclassmen took down the Class 2A state crown. It’s the third year an FHSAA stained oak basketball trophy made it back to Osceola County, following Osceola’s boys 9A championship last year and Poinciana’s Class 5A crown in 2016.

The Warriors starting five in Lakeland read: junior, junior, junior, sophomore, freshman, so something tells me the good folks in Lakeland will remember me.

Celebration High’s administrators, most notably Athletic Director Rick Tribit, was a busy stagehand this season, and not because he tackled those AD duties while coaching the Storm wrestling team. Celebration advanced to the state semifinals in boys soccer and to the championship game in boys volleyball, before falling to state or nationally-ranked squads.

If it sounds like I made a lot of trips to Celebration this year, I did. My poor Hyundai Accent can now drive itself there on autopilot (after stopping at a particular 192 Japanese buffet on the way for dinner), which begs the question: could the county have built that place any farther back in the corner of the Earth? Hunter Hummel, the Storms’ state champion discus thrower, can chuck a puck into Polk County from the Bushey Stadium visitors bleachers, for cryin’ out loud!

As for the school at the other end of the county, Harmony’s boys golf team, after years of close regional finishes, qualified for the state tournament as a team for the first time in school history.

Aside from City of Life’s girls and Celebration’s soccer and volleyball teams, no other teams won multiple regional games, and that includes in football. Osceola, which rumbled through its district for sixth straight time, earned a playoff berth the easy way in the state’s new point system that eliminated playoff spots for district runners-up in the state’s four biggest classes and instead issued points for taking on better programs, and beating them. That’s how Gateway, despite finishing third in District 8A-7 at 6-4, made the playoffs for the second time in three years after never going for the Panthers’ first 29 years of existence. Harmony, also 6-4 under new Coach Don Simon, was also in the running thanks to the point system — and thanks to a Longhorns’ passing offense that saw quarterback Nate Herstich break the school record for season yardage and the county record with 30 TD passes — until the season’s final week.

Osceola, after rolling through an undefeated regular season and handling Bradenton Manatee in its playoff opener, hosted an epic battle against Dr. Phillips that was an instant classic — for the wrong reason for Kowboys fans. OHS, after blocking a punt and kicking a field goal, took a 13-10 lead with two minutes left, only to watch the Panthers return the ensuing kickoff to midfield, drive into the red zone and toss an eight-yard, third-down touchdown pass with 15 seconds left and win it, 17-13. If we’re giving out statuettes, those two-plus hours of my life earn the Game of the Year honors, despite the outcome. After all, Dr. Phillips went on to claim the Class 8A state title at Camping World Stadium three weeks later.

Individually, Celebration’s Hummel, who avenged a runner-up discus finish at the state track meet last year, was a state champion, along with Osceola wrestler Malyke Hines, who defended his 126-pound Class 3A state title, and OHS girls weightlifter Virginie Beljour, who took the state 100-pound championship.

That’s a lot, and you’ll get to continue reading about them as the spring season Player of the Year stories start running next week. But it’s just a small sample of the athletes who “did it the right way” on fields, gyms, tracks — and in classrooms. A full cast of them earned athletic scholarships — my email and notebook runneth over with signing ceremony photos and chats with athletes who will continue their sports passions in college, on the school’s dime, of course. Much of my summer will be dedicated to working all of them into the sports section as soon as possible.

Let me take this chance to thank the players, most parents, the coaches, school athletic directors and School District AD Ryan Adams for making my job of writing the reviews so much easier. Behind the scenes, those people do so much for our children to help them reach the bigger stage of their choosing, in sports and in life.

So, now what? Our varsity athletes, current and upcoming for next year, will probably take a couple weeks for the beach, vacations and some sleep before heading back out for workouts, travel sports and training.

The Florida Fire Frogs, a cast already playing pro ball, will keep doing their thing through August — at least on the days Mother Nature doesn’t do hers. And while the Orlando SeaWolves indoor soccer team won’t kick off until November-ish, they’ll start to take shape as a roster and an organization in the coming months. Say what you will about soccer, and playing it indoors; this is going to do really, really well, or I will offer to stand in goal blindfolded and let you all shoot penalty kicks at me. Its season is during the Orlando City Soccer offseason, their fans will need a soccer fix and come down here — and some of those people are crazy. Can’t wait!

In August, Tohopekaliga High School (I can’t type that without bruising a knuckle) will have its opening act with a full slate of teams. When I first started working here in 2000, there were four public schools and two of us covering them. This August I’ll have eight to cover by myself. (All I’m saying is, I’m just sayin’.)

Sounds like we have our plot for the play we’ll call the 2018-19 season.

When it comes to 2017-18, all that’s left to say is …

Cut!