When a team lets the opponent score 11 goals in soccer, it sounds like the defense is struggling.
But, when those goals occur over a 17-game span, it sounds like a championship defense.
The Land O’ Lakes Gators girls soccer team is seeking a championship, and the defending Class 3A-8 champions are off to a 15-2 start.
Earlier this year, the Gators closed out its previous season in a 2-1 loss in the title game against American Heritage from Plantation.
While some teams might stumble a bit after that kind of loss, Land O’ Lakes has raced to a strong start. Aside from a 3-0 loss to Academy of the Holy Names on Dec. 1 and a 2-3 loss to Mitchell High on Dec. 14, only a handful of their games have been particularly close. And, they have won several of their games by sizable margins.
Coach Vicky King doesn’t see any secret formula to the Gators’ success.
“We work hard. We do have a good bit of talent. They have high expectations,” she said. “We work for everything we get. We know that nothing is given to us.”
That work includes a preseason conditioning program, which ensures that the athletes are in good shape when the first whistle sounds. Many of them also play club soccer, which helps, King said.
Many of them also play on different club teams, which the coach sees as an advantage. The players come together after being exposed to a variety of philosophies and styles of play, and when they play for their high school team, they execute at a high level on the field.
Even bumps in the road can have positive benefits. The loss to the Academy (who was also undefeated) was a lesson that they still have areas that need improvement.
“It was a good game. It was very challenging for us and shows what we need to work on,” King said. “It makes us refocus. If we want to reach our goals and succeed, then we know we have work to do.”
“Work” is a common theme with King. It has built a strong program over her 29 years as the team’s soccer coach, and it’s something she discusses with her players regardless of their opponent or their record at the time. By maintaining that focus, it builds a level of expectation that freshmen and sophomores recognize immediately, and work to meet or exceed from the very beginning.
It also helps maintain impressive records from year to year. Including the two losses this year, the team has lost only six games since the beginning of the 2013-14 season.
With that much success, some coaches might see a return to the state championship game as a likely event, or at least one that has a good chance of happening. But, King lives by the “one game at a time” mentality she preaches to the athletes. Like her players, she takes nothing for granted and only allows that continued success is a possibility if they remain focused and work hard.
“A lot of things can happen. They’re teenagers. Injuries, illness — the cards have to fall just right,” she said.
Those cards tend to fall into place for Land O’ Lakes, but it doesn’t happen with animated yelling or aggressive coaching on game days. The real work is done in practice, King said. If a team is prepared and focused, that should show up on the field. And, with all the players understanding what’s expected of them, most of the pieces are already in place when they step onto the field.
At that point, it’s up to them to execute. With all her success (the team won a state title in 2003) King said it’s ultimately their team, and they understand what it takes to continue the winning legacy of Land O’ Lakes girls soccer.
“I coach the team, but the team belongs to the players,” she said. “It’s their team. They know what our expectations are as far as performance on the field, performance in the classroom and performance in the community.”
The team has two remaining games on its schedule. It plays Pasco High on Jan. 6 at 7:45 p.m., and it plays Tampa Catholic on Jan. 8 at 7 p.m.
Published December 30, 2015