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Six Sickles Athletes to Watch

Today, the World of Westchase presents its annual Athletes to Watch at Sickles High School, more evidence that the Gryphons continue to produce high-level competitors, some of whom already have committed to play college athletics.

They are some of the best and brightest students at Sickles — talented athletes, ambassadors for their school, points of pride, leaders, record-setters in the games and good examples in the classroom.

It’s a diverse group. But whether they deal in bats, balls, gloves, sticks, hoops, nets, clubs, rackets or spikes, they are unified by a sense of purpose, a tireless work ethic and a love for their school.

Here’s a closer look:

DANIA BROOKS

Softball has taken DaNia Brooks all over the country through her participation with the Tampa Mustangs, a nationally elite travel program. She also has been a stalwart with the Gryphons, who made waves two seasons ago with a hot start and the nation’s No. 1 ranking.

But with her options wide open, Brooks revealed her priorities recently when she committed to play softball at the University of South Florida.

“I talked to a lot of people, but in the end, playing in your own backyard gives you a sense of family and that’s really important to me,’’ said Brooks, the daughter of Pro Football Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, the civic icon and all-time great linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “When you have days that aren’t the best, you’re still surrounded by the people who are most important to you, your family and friends. Having that kind of support means the world to me. Plus, USF is a great school with a great softball program.’’

Brooks is a dual threat with the Gryphons. She plays third base and also pitches. She led Sickles in batting average (.430), home runs (seven) and stolen bases (seven). On the mound, she was 5-4 with a 2.67 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 55 innings.

Brooks was 7 when she began playing at Keystone Little League, mostly because her mother’s friend suggested it could be fun. Pretty soon, Brooks realized it was fun.

“Obviously, I’ve had a high level of commitment to the sport through the Mustangs and Sickles,’’ Brooks said. “Because of that, there are things you don’t get a chance to do. But when you lock in with your teammates, the other people who also made the decision to do this at a high level, you bond together. Why not go all out? Why not try to be the best?’’

Brooks has proven to be an effective pitcher, but she said playing third base and hitting might be her first loves.

“At third base, you need the quick reaction time and I enjoy all the action of that position,’’ Brooks said. “And, of course, there’s nothing like hitting, especially when it goes over the fence. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m looking forward to doing it a lot longer.’’

And she will do it at USF. Just like when she’s at the plate in softball, Brooks found the way to come home.

CHRIS FOREMAN

No one can question Foreman’s toughness. Last season, he suffered a torn labrum during the summer, but recovered in time to play in every boys basketball game for the Gryphons. But something still wasn’t right. He played in pain with a lower-body injury, then learned he needed hip surgery.

“There were some rough moments,’’ said Foreman, a 6-foot guard. “But I wasn’t going to let down my team.’’

Foreman, entering his third season as a Gryphons starter, is expected to play a more prominent role with the graduation of stalwarts Javohn Thomas and Zach Johnson. Foreman averaged 6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game last season — modest-looking statistics, but they don’t tell the story of his true value.

Foreman, an excellent defensive player, generally guards the opposing team’s best scorer, sometimes putting him in a physical mismatch. But Foreman is not one to back down from a challenge.

“Chris has grown and become a better all-around player, a better passer and a better rebounder, while still being a great defender and shooter,’’ Sickles coach Mike Weaving said. “He’s going to primarily play on the wing, but he may need to step out of his comfort zone and play some point guard this year.’’

Foreman’s reaction? Whatever it takes.

“I don’t mind being the guy known for defense,’’ said Foreman, whose brother, Daniel Harris played at Quinnipiac University and now serves as an assistant basketball coach at Davis & Elkins College. “I think they might ask me to do some more scoring with the guys we lost from last year and I’m up for it. I just feel some relief because I got [my hip] fixed and I’m going to be so much better physically now.’’

Because of the surgery, Foreman wasn’t able to play during the summer. Weaving said that could be a positive.

“I think it helped him see the game in a bigger picture and he will be a coach on the floor for his teammates,’’ Weaving said.

“No question, I need to be a leader,’’ Foreman said. “I need to carry that responsibility.’’

Whatever it takes.

CADEN MCDONALD

McDonald’s junior year baseball statistics were eye-popping — .600 batting average, a 20-game hitting streak to start the season, 42 RBIs, 30 runs scored, 12 doubles, eight home runs, along with a 9-2 record and 1.92 ERA on the mound, along with 81 strikeouts.

McDonald also earned the Wade Boggs Award and the All-813Preps Most Valuable Player for Classes 6A-7A. He has committed to play baseball for the UCF Knights.

After one of the most outstanding seasons in the history of Hillsborough County baseball, it would seem like McDonald put a punctuation mark on a dominant Sickles career. But that’s not exactly the storyline.

The sum total of McDonald’s sophomore season: Three innings pitched, five at-bats, one start. He didn’t really have a position.

“I wanted to know what I needed to do to play more and Coach [Eric Luksis] told me we were losing 13 seniors and he would be counting on me to have a higher role,’’ McDonald said. “So, I kind of embraced that. I worked hard and made sure I was ready. I was highly motivated and all the work paid off.’’

It did.

“When you hit .600, it’s really not all luck,’’ McDonald said. “You’re seeing the ball at the right time. It really has to come together perfectly. Even beyond what I did individually, it was just great to be part of such a good team. We almost went all the way (making the state Final Four), so it was memorable all the way around.

“I just stuck with my approach and it helped with my confidence. You have to have the mindset that you’re better than whoever is out there pitching to you. After having a lot of success, I realize the mindset is huge. You see guys who start as freshmen and maybe commit to a college before their freshman season. My path was different. I have an appreciation for the full Sickles program experience. For the kids who are on JV trying to work their way up, I feel like I can help them. I mean, I was in their shoes.’’

McDonald has toyed with the idea of joining Sickles’ golf team. He tries to play at least once a week and it’s more than a pastime. He shot a career-best 76 at the Eagles, his home course, and a 79 at the Innisbrook Copperhead course. But after playing competitive junior golf, the sport is now more for relaxation.

McDonald said he hopes his best baseball is ahead of him at Sickles, which he hopes to lead back to the state tournament, and UCF, where he will be a two-way player (although he first thinks of himself as a pitcher).

“I’m really thankful for everything I’ve been able to do at Sickles,’’ McDonald said. “The best part is I have a whole other year left.’’

TATUM POPE

Learning has never been a problem for Pope, who has a 6.8 weighted grade point average and is currently ranked third in the senior class. By the end of the first semester, Pope is scheduled to have earned 57 college credits.

Successful learning was also necessary for Pope’s role on the Sickles volleyball team. After spending most of her career at libero — a back-row defensive position — Pope transitioned to setter. She’s the leader, the energy-giver, the brains of the operation.

“As the setter, you’re involved in everything,’’ said Pope, who added “on a good day’’ she’s 5-foot-4. “You’re setting up the hitters, giving them the ball at the best possible position so they can put it away. You kind of have to be the glue. At first, it was kind of overwhelming, but definitely fun. I had played the same position for a while, so it was fun to do something different.

“I love this sport. It’s super fast paced. You’re never going to get bored. There’s always something happening. And you’re in a loud environment with lots of exciting energy. It’s fun to play and fun to watch. I’m going to miss it.’’

After Sickles, Pope said she will likely limit her volleyball to recreational games. She’s focused on academics and her preferred landing spot is the University of Florida. Eventually, she’s focused on the medical field, possibly even going to medical school.

“I think volleyball has taught me like how much hard work pays off,’’ said Pope, a team captain. “It takes a lot of hard work to even get into medical school. So, I think I’ve just learned through volleyball that working hard is always worth it. And you’ll get the result that you deserve. You learn leadership skills that you can apply to life.’’

Pope said she believes her Senior Night will be emotional, just because she has been playing volleyball for seven years.

“But when it comes time to turn the page, I’ll move on to my next phase,’’ Pope said. “I won’t forget volleyball, though. It has given me a lot.’’

REAGAN WILSON

Wilson’s soccer statistics speak for themselves. She has 42 career goals for the Gryphons. She’s a three-time All-Western Conference first-team selection. She’s the Sickles Most Valuable Player and the team captain.

But for Sickles coach Patrick Dominique, it’s all about the intangibles.

“No one battles harder and no other team or program scares her,’’ Dominique said. “I found someone who hates to lose more than me.’’

Upon hearing that, Wilson laughed.

“That’s a perfect description,’’ she said. “I do not like to lose. I love the game so much. There’s nothing I love more than the feeling of winning with my teammates.’’

Wilson, a forward for the Gryphons and a center back for her Tampa Bay United club team, was a starter from the first moment she stepped onto the Sickles High pitch. She admittedly doesn’t have the most artistic technical game but makes up for it with a grinding physical style and determination.

Away from sports, she’s also driven.

Wilson will play soccer at the Air Force Academy. It wasn’t originally on her list of dream schools, but the Air Force reached out following her sophomore year. When Wilson attended a soccer camp there, her destination became clear.

Because of her athletic and academic prowess, Wilson received an appointment to AFA. She’s in the top eight percent of her senior classic with a 6.0 weighted grade-point average. She has received just one B in school — AP Human Geography — and doesn’t want that to happen again.

Wilson watched her older brother play soccer at Sickles, then earn a scholarship to Georgia Southern. That inspired her to become better and strive for high goals. Her resume is impeccable. The only thing missing is a fulfilling senior year.

“I’d love for us to go far as a team — to the regionals and beyond,’’ Wilson said. “I know my senior year will be great. There will be plenty of time for fun and games, but I want to stay pretty focused on my goals. That’s really the approach that has taken me this far and it’s who I am.’’

HAYDEN YOST

Yost was a big part of Sickles’ dream baseball season — he batted .281 with a team-leading 45 runs scored and 12 stolen bases, along with a .535 on-base percentage — but he wasn’t around for the finish.

In the region quarterfinals, Yost dove for a blooper in center field, but broke his right arm during a collision with the shortstop. Yost was forced to be a spectator as Sickles went on to the state Final Four.

“Super frustrating,’’ Yost said. “But what can you do? I don’t regret trying to make a play.’’

Yost, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound center fielder who committed to the University of Florida after his freshman season, has made plenty of plays for the Gryphons. He’s a tough out at the top of the lineup. His defense and speed also provide valuable weapons.

“I think I’m good at tracking down balls, making good hard contact, seeing a lot of pitches and having a pretty good approach,’’ Yost said. “We have a lot of talent on our team and I think we all contribute. We got a taste of big success last season and we want to do that again.

“It would make for a great senior year to win a state championship. I think we have enough experience to make a run at it. We know what it takes. Now we just need to be consistent and try to finish that job.’’

Yost said his favorite part of baseball is being part of a team. He said Sickles has a strong brotherhood and support system. Never was that more needed than last season when Yost was sidelined.

“I still felt very much a part of it,’’ Yost said. “We all had to make contributions to have a season like that. It was one of the best moments of my life, being part of a team that went that far.

“It starts in the fall with the work we put in there, then it carries over to the spring. A lot of things have to go your way, but we kept pushing and were able to get very far. It was really fun to watch and be part of it.’’

By Joey Johnston; Photos by Pat Duffey
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