The Sailors have kept battling despite numerous challenges — and a pandemic.
Starting sports programs from scratch is hard.
Throw in a pandemic, and it almost seems insurmountable. But the Sarasota High boys and girls lacrosse programs are doing their best to overcome it anyway.
The programs were scheduled to play their first games in 2020, but the season was shut down after just a handful of dates over COVID-19 concerns. For teams filled with many players who had never played lacrosse before — and some who had never played any organized sport before — this was a setback. The 2021 season, in essence, has been the programs' debut.
On the scoreboard, games have gone as expected. But the team's coaches are proud of the progress being made.
"Halfway through the season, our games weren't very close," boys Coach Christian Dombovari said. "But they had gotten their taste of a good lacrosse game. A good lacrosse atmosphere. The games we played showed them what lacrosse should feel like. And they never looked at the scoreboard and got down on themselves. They always played hard."
In the second half of the season, there's been a change. Dombovari said what he's proudest of is the way his team has begun thinking like a varsity lacrosse team. They started asking questions about what to do if an opponent cuts to a certain position or how to set up an open look at the net.
The Sailors boys (1-10) won their first game on March 30, a 14-3 road victory against St. Petersburg Catholic. It was the culmination of everything Dombovari wanted to see. They were aggressive and they made varsity-level decisions and plays. Junior attacker Dylan Martin set a program single-game record with seven goals. Sophomore midfielder Kellen Rector had five.
The girls (1-10) had their first win earlier in the season, a 15-10 win against Osceola High on Feb. 24. The win was just as satisfying for them, according to Coach Heather Ballew.
Ballew said this season has been about getting her players to love the game. Ballew took over the program for Heather O'Neill, who coached the team during last year's pandemic-shortened season. Ballew, who moved to Sarasota from Annapolis, Maryland, wants her players to view lacrosse not as a sport but a lifestyle, the way people do in the mid-Atlantic region. Every ground ball, every defensive stop and, yes, every goal should be celebrated, while every failure is an opportunity to learn and improve. If players don't love the gritty details, Ballew said, they're not going to love lacrosse as a whole. Ballew believes her team is getting there, though. To that end, the team is holding its final practice on Siesta Key Beach, ending the season on a joyful note.
"I have to give it to these kids for coming out hard," Ballew said. "I mean, I'm running a real varsity practice. But they see us having fun with it."
Both coaches said the 2020 season was never about wins, but development. To that end, the season has been a success. As the offseason approaches, players will have time to refine their game by playing with a club team and joining voluntary workouts. By the time next high school season comes around, they said, the bar will be raised.