By Kyle LoJacono
The Freedom girls soccer team did not win a district championship until the program’s seventh season in 2010 and has known nothing but titles since then.
The Patriots (4-1-1), who were 11-2-3 in 2010-11, won consecutive Class 5A-District 9 championships the last two years and the current group is out to make it three in a row.
“When we started out we were always the underdogs,” said senior forward Jenna Stiling. “The last two years we’ve really worked together as a team. All the players on our team had the potential, but we weren’t really working together before. Maybe we didn’t have the best speed or skill, but we had heart, and I think that’s why we’re the two-time defending district champs.”
The Patriots’ seniors came close to making the playoffs as freshmen, but came up one win short after falling against Newsome in penalty kicks in the district semifinals.
“Losing like that after playing so hard was tough,” said senior goalkeeper Emily Ball. “We came back and won two district titles with a different coach my sophomore and junior years. To win districts even with a coaching change shows the strength of our team. It’s been a great building process.”
Jenna Ball took over as Freedom’s coach before last season. The former Division I player at the University of South Carolina and University of South Florida (USF) took a team that lost all but two starters to graduation and helped make it into a repeat district champion.
“We came from almost a broken team last year because we lost so many people,” Emily said. “We had so many people who had to step up to make it happen.”
Graduation will be much less of a factor this year, as the Patriots lost only Katie Cerillo.
“We basically have the same team on the field,” said senior defender Suzanna Crochet. “We have a few seniors who weren’t starting last year who can fill in, so I think we can be even better.”
The squad returns its top two scorers from last year in Jenna and Leah Stiling, who posted 13 and eight goals, respectively. The fraternal twins enjoy working together on the Patriots attack.
“We’ve always played on the same soccer field, so I know where she’s going to go,” said Leah, who is 19 minutes older than Jenna. “We’re a little competitive to see who can score more goals, but it’s mostly fun.”
Jenna has jumped out of the gate fast this season, scoring seven goals in Freedom’s first three games.
Also back is most of the Patriots’ midfielding and defensive core, along with Emily and her 76 saves, 10 shutouts and six goals against last year at goalkeeper.
Freedom won’t have to learn how to play together this year, but the returners know they cannot rely on past year’s chemistry.
“The junior class last year had to prove we deserved to be here because everyone counted us as underdogs,” said senior midfielder Alyssa Daniello. “I feel like this year we have to work just as hard and have that feeling of nobody expects us to win. We don’t want the team to be complacent because that’s what made us good last year.”
Senior midfielder Sara Hill added, “Last year we had that want to come out and prove we could win even though we lost a lot of players, so the pressure now is we have to do it again. When you’re on top at any time you can go down.”
Along with the pressure to live up to consecutive district titles, the Patriots are driven by the strange way last season ended.
As a district champion, Freedom was supposed to host its regional quarterfinal contest against Naples Gulf Coast, but the lights would not come on at the Patriots’ field.
“That was probably the strangest game of my entire life,” Daniello said. “I remember pulling up to the school and the lights were out. We had to stand around to see what was happening.”
The game was moved to USF’s field, but the lights failed there after regulation. The squads went to Wharton High for overtime and eventually penalty kicks, where Gulf Coast came out victorious 4-2.
The Patriots have been ready for the new season since that unusual end to the 2010-11 campaign.
“The entire beginning of the school year all everyone on the team has been talking about is how excited we are to play again,” Crochet said.
Freedom travels to district rival Wiregrass Ranch on Tuesday, Dec. 6 at 8 p.m. before hosting Plant on Friday, Dec. 9 at 6 p.m.
–All stats as recorded to C2Cschools.com by coaches.