By Kyle LoJacono
The Land O’ Lakes girls soccer team has been a constant in the playoffs since Vicky King started the program in 1987.
The Gators (11-5-2) have reached the playoffs 16 times since the 1993-94 season, including 11 straight berths from 2000 until last year when the perennial power was knocked off in the district semifinals.
Land O’ Lakes lost 13 seniors from a squad that went 12-6-3 last year. The departure of so many veteran players left multiple holes in the lineup and created a lot of questions for the Gators entering this season, but early wins have given the Gators confidence they can start a new playoff streak.
“With a lot of seniors leaving everyone was a little nervous,” said senior midfielder/forward Arielle Le-Tran. “We thought what are we going to do, but we ended up getting a lot of good freshmen and transfers and things have really worked out.”
King was also unsure how the current campaign would unfold.
“I just didn’t know what to expect, but this team has really come together,” King said. “We started really strong, and I don’t think anyone would have expected us to play like this. I give (the team) a lot of credit for stepping up.”
Junior goalkeeper Ariana Bailey has filled one of the biggest voids. She moves in for Tara Marshall, who was a four-year starter between the pipes for Land O’ Lakes and amassed 177 saves and 10 shutouts last season.
Bailey, who is Marshall’s cousin, said she was nervous taking over for Marshall because of what the latter meant to the program the last four years and also because she had never played in a varsity game before this season.
“Our first preseason game I didn’t do really well because I was so nervous,” said Bailey, who has recorded 112 saves and 10 shutouts. “After preseason we faced some hard teams and we were better than most of the teams we were playing. The winning gave me confidence in myself and my team.”
Much of the Gators’ success this year can also be attributed to a new cast taking over in the defensive core. Land O’ Lakes brought back one starting defender, senior Kelsee Larson, but three freshmen and two transfers have solidified the unit.
One new defender is Holly Nasello. The junior moved from Jacksonville and spent the second half of the year at Sunlake before coming to the Gators. She has played on three different high school teams and said the bonding is what sets Land O’ Lakes apart.
“We’ve come together as more than just a team — we’ve come together as friends,” Nasello said. “We’re more about picking each other up if we make a mistake instead of yelling at each other.”
Nasello wasn’t worried about being a part of a new defense.
“I don’t think it matters what grade you’re in or whether you’re new or not,” Nasello said. “I think it’s about how you come out here and how hard you work.”
The defense also got a boost when senior Joelle Stewart moved from midfield.
“At tryouts coach King asked me to play back,” Stewart said. “I’ve been trying to push myself into that position. … We work together well and I just love our backline. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Freshman Mitsy Audate’s play at defense also allowed King to move former defender Alyssa Lonsway to forward, giving the Gators’ attack some much needed speed.
“I came in with the expectation of playing defense again, but I just happen to score some goals and help the team,” said Lonsway, who has a team-high 10 goals after scoring zero the year before.
King added, “Alyssa has a lot of speed and it’s hard to knock her off the ball. That’s something we’ve lacked.”
Lonsway’s new aptitude for scoring has fit in with a mentality shift for Land O’ Lakes’ offense, which scored only 46 goals last year.
“We have a lot more offense as a team,” King said. “We’re not afraid to shoot or push forward, so we’ve had a lot more people contribute, which has been a benefit to our team. I think it’s just their mindset.”
Also helping the attack is Le-Tran’s focus on setting up others. She has five assists, tied for the team high.
“I’ve been more focused on crossing the ball and assisting to help everyone else finish,” Le-Tran said. “We have more forwards, so I think that’s where I’ll help the team the most.”
The Gators play in Class 3A-District 7 tournament semifinals at Zephyrhills on Wednesday, Jan. 18 against the Bulldogs. The championship is on Friday, Jan. 20 at 7 p.m.
–All stats as recorded to Maxpreps.com by coaches
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