TAMPA – Wharton High’s fifth Lady Wildcat Invitational kicks off tonight, raising the curtain on what could prove to be a fascinating season for girls soccer in the bay area.
The eight-team tournament may have the strongest field in its history, with all four of the tournament’s semifinalists returning from a season ago, and the inclusion of Freedom and Seminole, both of which return strong squads.
Plant is the defending champion, having defeated Newsome in a shootout in last year’s final. While the Panthers have lost players like Lexi Rakestraw, Megan Fate and Courtney Zwetsch, the Panthers may actually be a stronger squad than last season. Junior forward Connor Zwetsch has already committed to Florida State, while goalkeeper Lauren Bodden and center back Amy Werdine will lead what should be a strong defense.
Those players, and an increase in depth coming off the bench, have Panthers coach Steve McGill thinking big as the team starts the season.
“I expect us to contend for the (state) title” McGill said. “I expect us to be playing at the end of the season. I think we definitely have the team and the capability to do that.”
The Panthers should get a good test to open the season when they face Freedom on Tuesday evening. Patriots coach Chris Hinkle lost his best player from last season in forward Monique LaMotte, but returns the rest of his starting 11 from a season ago.
With a large freshman class having gained a lot of experience last season coupled with the experience of players like Olivia Bloemke, the Patriots have a strong chance to win their first district title this season.
“Last year, I had a handful of starters come back,” Hinkle said, “but I incorporated a lot of new freshmen into the line-up had to get them comfortable with playing 17-, 18-year-old girls when they were 14-, 15-year-olds themselves. Now I feel like as sophomores, they’re ready to play, and I’ve got a lot of options.”
A side that is facing a similar circumstance to Freedom last season is Newsome, which lost nine starters from last season, including standouts such as Ana Cate, Kendall Graham and Morgan Sammons. But Coach Kelly Townsend isn’t expecting a drop-off from her side, with the Wolves appearing to have a strong group of young players ready to step into the starting line-up.
“Nothing short of what we’ve accomplished in years past, if not further,” Townsend said when asked of expectations for this season. “I think our transition from last year to this year has been a really smooth one, I’ve had a lot of players improve over the last year, I’ve had a lot of players get stronger over the last year and I’m really excited about this.”
One team that appears to be ready to make move is host Wharton. After having squads made up primarily of underclassmen for the past few seasons, Coach Denis Vukorep now has a more balanced squad. He expects that to bring greater consistency to his side.
“I just think we’re a team that maybe people aren’t thinking about that we’re going to have a good season,” Vukorep said. “I think we’ve shown in the past that on any given day we can post a result, and I think this year we’re going to show we can be a little more consistent.”
The Wildcats open against Clearwater Central Catholic, one of two teams to come across the bay to compete in the tournament this year. The other is Seminole, which reached the Class 5A Region final last season before losing to eventual state champion Palm Harbor.
The Warhawks haven’t lost much from that squad, and return forward Megan Lawrence who had 27 goals last season. The Warhawks also return Lawrence’s strike partner Noel Forsman and junior Sierra Lelii, midfielders Melanie Benner and Gina Heyduke, defender Tara Delvin and goalkeeper Casey Merson. Seminole coach Steve Kuplicki is looking forward to seeing how his team performs this week.
“Playing in this Wharton tournament really does give us an idea of where we are early in the season,” Kuplicki said. “What coaches do is they’ll try to look for combinations and things that will work well, especially with a tournament like this early in the season. The competition is going to be good, and we’re looking forward to it.”