By Kyle LoJacono
The Wesley Chapel girls soccer team is experiencing something never felt before in the program’s 13-year history — expectations.
The Wildcats went 9-12 last year and made the playoffs for the first time, earning the Class 3A-District 7 runner-up spot. They also went 6-2 against district opponents, the first time they’ve ended regular season league play with a winning record.
“For the girls, it meant they could, for the first time, talk about the team on a positive note,” said third-year Wesley Chapel coach Michelle Clark. “We had an awesome season. It was a proud moment for them. I was proud that I could help them get to that point. It was something that they wanted for so long, and it was great to help them finally get to that point.”
Senior Kelsey Bare, who played forward, midfield and defense last year, said the postseason trip has the squad hungry for more.
“It drives us even more because we got a taste of it,” Bare said. “We want even more. A lot of the girls last year have talked to me and said they want the same thing, and we’ve all been working hard to reach that goal.”
The Wildcats were still fighting to gain any kind of respectability at this time last year.
The program had won just 10 games the previous five seasons while dropping 65 contests. Winning nine games in one year was unheard of at Wesley Chapel.
“We got psyched about it and we always wanted to win that next game,” said sophomore defender Jade Torres. “As we kept on winning it got our confidence up, and that’s how we got so far.”
Bare said the mentality of the squad is much different.
“The team used to be a joke,” Bare said. “Now we’re a winning team. At school we’re not looked down at anymore. … There is a little bit of pressure, but I think that’s going to drive us to be even better.”
Bare said Clark helped the players understand that winning was possible.
“Coach came in with a different mentality,” Bare said. “She told us to come in willing to work or don’t come at all. If you want to put forth an effort show up. She wanted us to be a winning team, and that’s where she’s gotten us.”
The winning has another side effect. Now, players want to be a part of the program.
Clark said they have at least 15 players completely new to the squad in conditioning and the first week of practice.
“A lot of them are juniors and seniors who haven’t played here before,” Clark said. “They want to come play now, and that’s a good feeling.”
The squad lost only three seniors from last year, but those graduates were big members to the playoff run.
Gone are midfielder/forward Jessica Courchene, defender Taylor Doherty and midfielder Tess Gemberling, who led the squad with 13 goals last season.
“We didn’t lose a lot of seniors last year,” Clark said. “We did lose some talent, but I see a lot of talent coming in too. I have a large senior class this year, and last year we had a lot of freshmen on varsity. Knowing that we’re going to continue to get players who are improving is important so you don’t lose a couple players and have it be like, ‘Oh no.’”
The Wildcats do bring back their second-leading scorer in Bare (10 goals) and adds young offensive threats like freshman forward Tori Channata.
“It’s awesome to try to keep the tradition started last year,” Channata said. She added, “I heard that they weren’t known to win, and last year they came out of nowhere to win. Went to districts, did really good and they’re expecting to do the same this year. Actually do even better.”
Taking another step would likely mean the Wildcats will have to achieve another first this season — beating Land O’ Lakes.
The Gators have never lost to Wesley Chapel, with three wins last year including the district championship game.
“This year I want to get back to the district championship game, and hopefully this time win the district championship,” Bare said. “We got the runner-up trophy last year, so we want that championship.”
Clark said such expectations are welcome.
“Setting goals is the big thing,” Clark said. “Any goal that we put in we’ll be able to accomplish. We showed that last year. You want to get to the same goals and then up it a little bit. I’m really excited to see what we can do this year.”
Wesley Chapel starts the season at Ridgewood Nov. 1 after the junior varsity game at 6 p.m. The Wildcats host the 3A-7 tournament Jan. 15 to 18, with the final on Jan. 18 at 7 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker