The Champs: Who are they?

By Randy Lefko Sports Editor
Posted 6/1/22

FLEMING ISLAND - The recent state championship softball title won by the Middleburg High School girls team showcased the many different variables that need to align to create a state championship …

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The Champs: Who are they?


FLEMING ISLAND - The recent state championship softball title won by the Middleburg High School girls team showcased the many different variables that need to align to create a state championship window of opportunity.
Great athletes make for championship level achievement, but more variables are part of the equation that makes that final day competition the best of a arguably long seasons fret with such obstacles such as injuries, weather, school tests and requirements plus the miriad of social rubber bands that pull almost any high school ager, much less high school-aged athletes.
That being said, let’s look at the state champions of 2022-2023 from Clay County.
One state title is quite the achievement; two even better and three, phenomenal.

Matthew Stratton

For St. Johns Country Day School cross country and track runner Matthew Stratton, the senior season in both sports were his shot to showcase a summer’s worth of work dedicated to finishing above the top three which he had done in his sophomore and junior seasons. Mission Accomplished.
Stratton stormed to a triple title post season in cross country with a district and region title preluding that state title in Tallahassee.
As has been written about in Clay Today sports over the years, Stratton had been a top five finisher in cross country for three of his four seasons.
After blasting his senior season, Stratton went back to work for the spring track season, triple played his post season there with district wins in the 800, 1600 and 3200, region titles in the 1600 and 3200 and a final state title in the 3200.
“I qualified for all three, but the choice to run just the 3200 at state was based on a little tweak on my Achilles from all the fast running,” said Stratton.
A possible injury and a possible blip in his scholarship aspirations at the University of Florida made for that personal decision.

Tamira Briley

In girls weightlifting, Oakleaf High senior Tamira Briley chased a second straight state title after learning from her disastrous sophomore season snafu of deciding her opening lifts at regions made her alter her strategy at the state meet and giving her a 10th place state finish.
In her junior year, the strategy misstep was factored into her entire season and she blasted to the state 110 pound title with a dominant win by over 40 pounds.
In her senior year, now with strategy, elite training and a smooth senior season academically, plus a family support network with double state track triple jump brother Melvin Briley, Briley cruised through her senior year to one of the most dominating seasons; now at 119 pounds, with her second state title; this time by 50 pounds, with a gold medal finish in the newly-installed Olympic snatch state competition.

Clay girls weightlifting

For Clay High’s girls weightlifting, under the tenacious guidance of coach Rodney Keller, the collective spirit of dominating was persistent in the Blue Devil championship chase with two team titles; Traditional and Olympic Snatch, and individual titles to a freshman sensation, Emma Heck at 129, a seasoned veteran Janiyah Stevens at 154 and Unlimited Kyleigh LaFary, both returners to finish unfinished business from the previous state meet. Heck and teammate Gianna Torres also won gold in the Olympic Snatch.

Keystone boys weightlifting

For Keystone Heights High’s boys weightlifting team, the strength of numbers proved fateful as coach Lantz Lowery doubled up on points from his previous year’s title to crush all comers in his gym with a second team title and an individual title from a guy, Ulysses Freed, determined to overcome a serious injury. Freed won gold in the two disciplines; Traditional and Olympic Snatch with teammate Bryar Schenck also getting gold in Olympic Snatch.

St Johns Country Day Soccer

Of course, the queens of state titles reside at St. Johns Country Day School where the likes of Julia Boaventura, Kamryn Towers and Hannah Lemieux led a team of fairly new faces into the tiger’s den of thieves trying to steal the trophy from a “reload” year for coach Mike Pickett. Result: Another state title for Pickett’s girls.

“Talent wins games. Teamwork and intelligence wins championships”
- Michael Jordan

In swimming, Fleming Island sophomore Maryn McDade had the best of the best to grab her 50 freestyle state title, a race that squeezes a lifetime of practice into a 22 second window of perfection. McDade dealt with the top swimmers all being within microseconds of each other in the 23.58 to 23.92 difference between her gold medal and a silver medal.
In a 50 yard sprint, off a start block, with water a super resistant force on the human body, the smallest of minute mistakes can make the difference in winning or losing.
In the 100 free, McDade was tied for second at 51.47 with the winner at 51.35. That’s pretty close.

Gabriel Oliveria
Back to weightlifting, boys this time and Oakleaf High senior sensation Gabriel Oliveria, a guy noone knew just a year ago.
The simple task of being in the right classroom at the right time with the right coach created a path to a state title that had all factors lining up for an entire season. Oliveria’s Class 3A title at 183 pounds was contingent on the very last lift of his second place competitor; that guy being a defending state champion, thinking about how Oliveria put the very best numbers up before him.

Addison Frisbee
St. Johns had another state title come from weightlifter Addison Frisbee, a Florida AAU champion competitor, who transferred her skills in Olympic lifts to lead the Spartans first-ever weightlift team with an Olympic Snatch title in Class 1A.
“Everyone has the fire, but the champions know when to ignite the spark.” Unknown.

Girls wreslting
In wrestling, two girls wrestlers maintained their excellence for more than a year, probably two years, considering the sport only emerged as a legit state sport a year ago.
Madisyn Blackburn of Clay High and Andrea Smith of Orange Park, both kept their eyes on the prize with the state putting girls wrestling to a legit state champion sport.
The decision to stay true to the sport past the club titles they won in the prior year and pursue the state title their senior years were evident in their work ethic and focus; summer time wrestling, wrestling with boys, lifting, eating right.
In boys wrestling, Clay High’s Garrett Tyre took the bad of getting kicked out of a bad match the week before districts thus eliminating his chase for a state title in his junior year to creating a mindset to not be influenced with those same bad choices in one of the roughest seasons that ended with a split second state title.
Coaches often say “Next play” when athletes must deal with adversity and Tyre kept that mantra in the back of his brain even when a scramble at his region championship match left that as a possibility. Officials deemed the incident just tough wrestling, Tyre continued and won, then progressed to win state title.

“Every champion was once a contender that refused to give up”
- Rocky Balboa

And, most recently, the Middleburg High girls softball team turned an 11-11 midseason record to nine straight wins including the Class 5A championship with a scrappy, never-say-die attitude behind a bonecrushing pitcher and a coach that shot lazers out of her eyes, then made a joke in the seventh inning with bases loaded and two outs to snag the title. Legend.

“The key is not the will to win..everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that is important.”
– Bobby Knight


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