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Blazers soccer team cares more about development than its record

Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn.

Sarasota Christian coach Brett Mitchell watches his team's game against Southeast High.
Sarasota Christian coach Brett Mitchell watches his team's game against Southeast High.
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This is what you see on paper: The Sarasota Christian boys soccer team is 0-12, as of Jan. 17. The Blazers have lost by an eight-goal margin in five of those games. They have been held scoreless in nine of them, and have not scored more than two goals in any game.

This is what you see in person: A bunch of high schoolers, most of whom have no previous soccer experience, trying their hardest and having fun doing it.

The Blazers played Southeast High on Jan. 16, their final home game of the season. The game was controlled by Southeast from the start, but freshman goaltender Griffin Schlabach kept the scoreboard clean. Schlabach faced a deluge of shots from the Seminoles and turned away all of them in the first half. It’s his first year playing goalie, a position he’s wanted to play for three years on different teams.

“There was always a bigger guy in front of me,” Schlabach, 5-foot-8, said. Because of some injuries, he got his chance this season, and coach Brett Mitchell said he’s improved in every aspect since the beginning of the year.

On this night, he was the only thing keeping the Blazers’ hopes lit, and even those were eventually dashed. After taking a 0-0 game to the 19-minute mark of the second half, Schlabach finally conceded a goal. The floodgates opened after that, and the game ended 4-0. Schlabach made 39 saves. That’s not a typo.

It’s coaching players like Schlabach and watching them develop that makes this rough season worth it for Mitchell. He’s not happy with the black-and-white results, of course, but he is happy with his team’s overall improvement. Those eight-goal losses all came at the beginning of the season. Lately, the Blazers have been competitive, keeping opponents on their toes until late in the game, when their inexperience shows. How inexperienced are they? Mitchell had to remind his team of the concept of offsides during the game.

Morale on the team is high. The handshake line after the Southeast game is conducted as usual, and followed by a few Blazers players doing a dance while picking up their things from the bench. Players chat and laugh while doing cooldown stretches. Their body language says they just won the game. They didn’t, but they refuse to let it show.

“They’re excited to be playing and learning,” Mitchell said. “For some of the seniors, it’s tough to be going out this way, but for most of them, this is their future. They’ve got four years to figure it out.”

Even a senior like Noel Aldridge walks off the field with a smile. Aldridge is one of the few Blazers to play soccer outside of school. He’s played since kindergarten. On this night, the forward didn't get any dangerous scoring opportunities. The Southeast defense was too fast and Sarasota Christian’s ball control was too fleeting. Still, Aldridge is in a good mood postgame.

“I don’t get my joy through winning,” Aldridge said. “I get it through my personal game. Working hard, going one-on-one (with defenders) and having fun. Getting to do it with these guys, also. These guys are some of my best friends.”

I usually try to skid out of sentimentality when possible, but sometimes sports really aren’t about box score numbers. This Blazers team knew it was undermanned all season, and it didn’t care. It trudged on anyway, determined to learn the game and at the same time learn that, yes, every player is capable of improving when faced with challenges.

Part of the reason for the Blazers’ struggles is turnover. Mitchell, who also coaches the girls program, is their fourth coach in four years. He’ll cut his workload to one program next season, but he’s not sure which he’ll let go yet. If he stays with the boys, if young players like Schlabach keep developing, and if older players like Aldridge keep encouraging them and playing hard, I’d expect better results in the years to come.

If not, they’re still having more fun than most people, and that’s not nothing.



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