Sixth-year program looks for first playoff berth
By Kyle LoJacono
The feeling around the Sunlake girls soccer team is very different from any other season.
The Seahawks went 0-20 during their inaugural season, followed by campaigns of 1-22, 2-14-1 and 3-10-5.
Things started turning around last year when Sunlake finished 7-9-6 and won the first district tournament game in program history, a 3-2 victory over Pasco in the Class 3A-District 7 quarterfinals.
Now, the sixth-year program is poised to take the next step and make its first trip to the playoffs, according to coach Jami Finan.
“We do talk about making the playoffs all the time, and I tell them we have the talent,” said Finan, who is in her second season at the helm. “If any team is going to do it, it’s this team. This is the Year of the Seahawk.”
Sunlake (4-4-4, 3-0-2) already has more 3A-7 wins than last season and is currently in the No. 2 slot in the five-team district.
The Seahawks have beaten Pasco twice and Zephyrhills once in district play while tying Land O’ Lakes and Wesley Chapel, the defending 3A-7 champion and runner-up, respectively.
“Since we tied the district champ and runner-up already shows that we do have the ability to be one of the top teams in the county,” said junior midfielder Emily Higgins, who has four goals and four assists this season.
Part of the Seahawks rise this year is an infusion of new talent while not losing any players to graduation from last season.
Along with freshman defender Reagan Gorian, the varsity roster has been bolstered by the addition of seniors Laura Galindo, Katarina Parise and Brandi Travis and junior Cassidy Place.
“The jump from last year to this year has been huge,” Finan said. “In fact, the jump has been so large it brings smiles to my face. Everyone is back from last year, and then the additions have been big. We were young last year and trying to piece things together and gel. This year it’s unbelievable.”
Place, a junior defender, played two years ago, but opted not to compete for Sunlake as a sophomore. She said the experience has been much more enjoyable than the three-win season in 2010-11.
“My freshman year we didn’t really win at all, so it’s been a much better experience,” said Place, who has four goals and four assists. She added, “Now that we’ve started winning we all want to work harder so we can keep winning. You can see it happening.”
Senior goalkeeper Maya Kamat (45 saves, four shutouts) said the new talent has given them a reason to play harder.
“This is the first year that I feel the team has the ability to make it past districts,” Kamat said. “We’ve got really good talent here. … The thing I’m seeing is we’re taking it a lot more seriously this year than before. We’re excited because we think we can do it instead of just losing in the first game of districts.”
Junior defender Carly Hill added, “The big thing is we’re working together now. In the past we’d not really work like a team on the field. We’d just be running around, and we’d get down on ourselves and start fighting because of it. Now it’s different because we want to work together because we know we can win.”
Hill said Finan’s mentality has also been key to the ascendance.
“She’s more serious,” Hill said. “She wants us to work harder, and she shows it in practice. She makes us work more, and she just has that passion for the game.”
Finan, who coached at Wesley Chapel from 2002 to 2010, said the defensive core has been the strength so far this year. Sunlake has four players with at least 90 steals: Hill (157); Cassidy Kallenborn (110), Place (99) and Higgins (90).
“Our offense needs to work on keeping possession, working the angles and just kind of tweaking those things,” Finan said. “Also, we need to not be too nervous to take shots even from outside the 18. They’re all capable of scoring from all over.”
Finan said her players are also still learning the little nuances of high school soccer.
“I have to remind them that this is a district game and this is a conference game and what the difference is,” Finan said. “They’ve never really had to think much about it before.”
The Seahawks will get a chance to see how far they’ve come when they match up again with Land O’ Lakes Dec. 10 at 7:30 p.m. Not only have the Gators (7-4-1, 3-0-1) made the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons, but are also Sunlake’s cross-town rival.
The Seahawks have tied Land O’ Lakes in their last three meetings, but have yet to post a victory against the squad north on US 41.
“Having them right up the road fuels our fire,” Higgins said. “We want to beat Land O’ Lakes so bad. They’ve been at the top, and we want to get to that level every year. Our games with them are so physical. I can’t even put it into words how much we want to beat them.”
Getting that first W would give Sunlake the inside track on the No. 1 seed in the 3A-7 tournament, which is at Wesley Chapel Jan. 15 to 18. The final is Jan. 18 at 7 p.m.
The Seahawks hosted River Ridge Dec. 3, but results were not available by press time. Sunlake plays at home Dec. 5 against Zephyrhills and Dec. 6 versus Fivay. Both games start at 7:30 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker