The team has played as a unit ahead of its regional semifinal game Feb. 9.
When the Lakewood Ranch High boys soccer team (17-1-2) won its seventh-straight district title on Jan. 31, a 5-0 home win against Riverview High, it celebrated with the fervor of a team doing so for the first time.
Senior forward Wilmer Yanez, who recorded a hat trick in the game, hugged junior defender Cade Schwarz. Senior midfielder Josh Hays stood hands on hips and staring into the night, smiling. Everyone razzed senior midfielder Alex Thompson, one of the team’s vocal leaders, as he carried the trophy toward the designated team photo site.
It was a fun moment for players whose chemistry suggests they have played together for years.
But they haven't.
The team’s chemistry has been solid despite the blending of players from different cultural backgrounds. Yanez’s family hails from Honduras. Hays and Thompson are from England, though only Thompson carries a British accent. Junior forward Najii Greene-Villegas was born in Japan. Senior defenseman Andrew Schagen and sophomore defender Daniel Schagen have roots in Argentina. Freshman midfielder Sam Leavy speaks in an Irish brogue. Sophomore defender Reed Rampinelli’s family is from Italy.
Including the U.S., seven countries are represented in the Mustangs’ ranks. On some teams, this could cause issues. Lakewood Ranch, however, doesn't have any. Everyone respects where the others are from, Thompson said, and stories about their cultures are shared.
Occasionally the team will mention someone’s background in jokes, but it is always in good fun, they said, like a brother picking on his sibling.
“They are constantly on each other,” Mustangs coach Vito Bavaro said. “But it is playful. They sincerely care for each other. Usually we have four or five cliques of guys, but there’s none of that here.”
The regular bonding has broken down any barriers. A preseason trip to IHOP helped the team mingle over pancakes. Bus trips to road games helped them find common ground in music, usually hip-hop, with either Hays, Greene-Villegas or Schwarz helming the aux cord. Now they often go to Chipotle or Chili’s together for team meals, play video games on the weekends and sometimes even wrestle.
“But only for cardio reasons,” Thompson said with a smile. “And sometimes my neck, it gets twisted, so I have to straighten it out.”
Underneath the jokes, the chemistry the team has built helps on the field. Running their signature “three-man weave” to perfection, the Mustangs’ timing is sharper than ever. Senior midfielder Travis Freeman said the sport is easy to play when you know exactly where your teammates are going to run.
Once ranked as high as third in the nation by MaxPreps, Lakewood Ranch is now ranked 75th, and 10th in a strong Class 5A. The team fell not because of losses, but because of win margin, often beating teams by a goal or two instead of blowing them out. While the team jokes about this, too — “We’re nice guys, we don’t want to beat people too bad,” Thompson said — it also knows that level of play will not cut it in the playoffs. The Mustangs’ 5-0 district title win against a scrappy Rams team may be, in hindsight, a turning point, if the team reaches the heights it believes it can.
“They all want it,” Bavaro said. “They want to win. Luckily, they have managed to find ways to have fun at the same time.”
Lakewood Ranch will play Steinbrenner High in a home regional quarterfinal game at 7 p.m., Feb. 6.