With the impending opening of Windermere High, programs at West Orange High that have experienced recent success are prepping for the inevitable split.
Different teams are going to feel it in different ways — some more than others — but there is no way around it.
As this school year ends, so too does an era for the West Orange High athletics department.
In the 12 years since the last time it was rezoned due to the opening of a relief school (Ocoee High in the fall of 2005), the Winter Garden-based high school has fielded some of its most successful teams in its history — specifically from 2015 through 2017.
Formerly a school that served Winter Garden, Oakland, part of south Ocoee and most of Horizon West, West Orange now is set to lose most of its athletes coming from Horizon West.
And although the split is not official until Windermere High opens in the fall, it already is being felt.
The West Orange football team was practicing with 25 fewer players than normal this spring, according to head coach Bob Head. However, the veteran head coach said he is not too concerned about what the split will mean for his program.
“It’s just less bodies to develop as well as to practice against,” Head said of the drop in numbers. “Overall, we’re not frustrated or worried in any way.”
The fact remains, though, that West Orange’s football program has enjoyed its best stretch of seasons within the past five years, including a run to the state semifinal in 2015.
The football team isn’t alone, either. Ross Usie’s volleyball program also has achieved a number of firsts in the past three seasons, and the head coach for the Warriors said his program will lose most of its junior varsity team (between 14 and 17 girls), as well as a pair of outside hitters from his varsity squad.
Despite that, Usie said it was important not to let the impending split have too much influence on how he coached last fall and said he is excited for some of the players who will get new opportunities with the brand-new program.
“We knew the new school would take a large number of our athletes, but we did not let it affect last season,” Usie said. “Some of the younger girls are happy they will be able to make an impact on their varsity squad at the new school.”
The volleyball program also will lose future players that previously came its way from Bridgewater Middle School — winner of three consecutive county championships in girls volleyball. In fact, Windermere’s first volleyball coach is Layla West, the coach of those Bridgewater Middle teams.
The fall sport that will be hit the hardest, though, may be golf. Boys golf head coach Scott Baker said he is losing his No. 1 and No. 4 from the fall 2016 season — both rising juniors. Moreover, he would have lost his entire starting five had Windermere High not have forgone a senior class its first year.
WINTER IS COMING
Regarding winter sports, West Orange’s soccer team is another team that has become an annual contender. Veteran head coach Scott Fisher said his junior varsity team will be decimated, losing 12 players, while his varsity squad will lose three players to the new school.
Although this coming season may not be overly affected, Fisher said the split sheds light on the future.
“It makes it hard to build for the future when so many young players are leaving,” Fisher said.
On that front, Fisher and other coaches may be able to lean on the expertise of coaches who were around in 2005 when Ocoee High opened — including boys basketball coach Eric Jones. Jones, who estimates he is losing half of the players in his program (14 of 30), said some programs may be set back a few years before they get their feet back under them.
“It definitely requires rebuilding for two to four years,” Jones said. “It feels like starting a new program.”
Two of the more interesting teams that will be impacted by the split are teams whose respective seasons just ended: West Orange’s softball and baseball teams.
The Warriors’ softball program is flying high as can be, winner of consecutive state championships, but head coach Todd LaNeave acknowledges the split will be significant to his program.
“It will be difficult, moving forward with the new school, to put the collective talent with one team on one field — we’re losing some pretty good players,” LaNeave said.
LaNeave said he is losing five players from his junior varsity team and one pitcher from his state championship varsity team. However, he believes both West Orange and Windermere will field competitive teams in the years to come.
“I think (the rivalry) will be fun — and interesting,” LaNeave said.
Meanwhile, Jesse Marlo’s baseball program — a program that just ended its season in the regional final — is set to lose one varsity player and half of its junior varsity roster.
Marlo, who had just started at West Orange when the Ocoee split happened, said this time around it will be more pronounced.
“This one is going to affect us a little bit more — (Windermere is) going to be competitive right off the bat,” he said.
Like softball, Marlo is optimistic there will be a best-case scenario in which both programs thrive. In part, Marlo is confident in this based on his knowledge of the youth travel ball scene.
“There’s so many people moving over here, the whole west side of town is flooded with baseball players,” Marlo said. “I’m still confident that we’re going to stay strong.”
How exactly each program will respond to this latest bit of adversity is yet to be seen. One thing for certain, though, is that starting this fall, when former Warriors line up against those in orange and blue — this time wearing navy and green — it will be a unique occasion for the community here in West Orange.
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].