SIDELINE SCENE | West Orange softball finished as state runner-up in FHSAA Class 9A last week — continuing a remarkable run for the program that has included two state championships, three trips to the Final Four and a regional final appearance.
Perspective is a funny thing with sports. Take the West Orange softball team, for instance.
From the outside, it might seem like a disappointment that the Warriors fell 7-0 to Davie’s Western High in the FHSAA Class 9A State Championship Game May 24 — leaving West Orange one win short of a three-peat as state champs in 9A.
After all, the Warriors have a growing reputation on the state and national level, such that when they arrive at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach for the Final Four — as they have for each of the past three seasons — opposing teams subconsciously hear “The Imperial March.”
So, it wasn’t a shock to the Florida softball community, at large, that West Orange was back in Vero Beach and playing for another state title last Thursday, after beating Timber Creek 2-1 a day earlier in the state semifinal.
But, I’ll let you in on a little secret — it was a bit of a surprise to them.
“We definitely were not expecting to be here, but it makes the season even better,” senior outfielder Lexie Blair said.
It’s a sentiment head coach Todd LaNeave, who has guided the program through its unprecedented run these past few seasons, shared.
“Did I think we would be here? Not initially,” LaNeave said. “That’s just because we were still trying to figure things out.”
And even though the players coming up from junior varsity were undoubtedly talented, it is still hard to know what a player is capable of until she is playing in big-time varsity games. It was unclear to LaNeave and his staff where the offense would come from in a lineup that lacked big bats.
West Orange struggled at points during the season, too. The Warriors were beat 10-0 in the second game of the season, were swept by district rival Apopka and their eight losses in 2018 is more than their losses from 2015, 2016 and 2017 — combined. Injuries ravaged the lineup and, at one point, a 20-athlete roster only had 13 girls available.
Blair and LaNeave said it wasn’t until just before the district tournament — a tournament for which the Warriors were the No. 3 seed — that things started to come together.
What’s more, LaNeave had a heart attack in March that sidelined him for more than a month. That left Kelsey LaNeave — Todd LaLeave’s daughter and lead assistant coach — to guide the team while also being concerned about her father’s well-being.
Despite all of that, the Warriors ended up back within one game of a championship. Seen through that lens — through that perspective — and the girls for West Orange were not hanging their heads for long.
“It’s disappointing for about two minutes — but it’s not disappointing to be here (in the state final),” LaNeave said. “To be standing here after a state final, I’m speechless — this group was phenomenal this year, to be able to make a run like that.”
As someone who covers high-school sports, I’ve always viewed state championships as fickle things — strange things happen in single-elimination playoffs. Even within this run for the program at West Orange, the team that was arguably the most talented — the Warriors’ 2015 team loaded with Division I recruits — was the one that came up just short of making it to Vero Beach.
As far as I’m concerned, sustained excellence is the true holy grail of high-school sports.
And if you look at the past four years for West Orange — regional runner-up, state champion, state champion and state runner-up — it’s the dictionary definition of sustained excellence.
And there’s no reason to think it’ll slow down, either.
“We certainly don’t take it for granted — it’s pretty special,” LaNeave said. “We’ve got something really special at West Orange softball, and I’m hoping we can continue that.”