Like its namesake, the Parrish Community High girls soccer team has bulled its way through the early-season.
The Bulls are 7-0-1 through eight games — the only tie coming Dec. 2 in a 1-1 road game against Venice High — and they are partially led by a group of players from East County, including sophomore forward Natalie Greenhaw, sophomore midfielder Sydney Weslowski, junior midfielder Brooke Gillaspy and senior midfielder Madelyn Portwood.
The Bulls say they are so committed to playing as one unit, the coaching staff doesn't keep individual season-long stats.
Five Parrish players, including Portwood, scored in the team's 5-0 win against Cypress Creek High on Nov. 18 and that illustrates the Bulls don't have to rely on one or two players. On Nov. 29, in the team's 8-0 win over Hardee County High, Portwood and four others again scored goals, with sophomore Kendall Hecht having three goals. Whoever has the best chance to score on a given possession will get the ball. Early in the 2021 season, that's worked well.
As difficult to defend as the team's attack has been, the team's defense also has been stout. The Bulls have allowed three goals through eight games and are adept at getting to loose balls before an opponent can attack. Greenhaw said three years into the program's existence, the Bulls have figured out the best way to play team soccer.
"We honestly just fit well together," Greenhaw said. "A lot of the girls know each other now. We've been doing morning workouts outside of our normal practices and doing strength training together. We're all supportive of each other in general. We communicate well and we know how everyone plays."
The natural flow of a new high school has helped the Bulls program improve quickly. The first two years of the program, Parrish didn't have separate varsity and junior varsity programs. The roster featured no seniors. In the first season, the Bulls played mostly junior varsity opponents. In the second year, the schedule was full of varsity opponents, but mostly from smaller schools to keep things on a level playing field. The Bulls finished 9-4, with three losses coming against Lakewood Ranch High, Braden River High and Riverview High. The final loss came against Bishop Verot in the team's Class 3A district tournament.
In 2021, the Bulls still are relatively inexperienced, but they finally have enough players (and talent) to field separate varsity and junior varsity teams. Already the Bulls have beaten Braden River 2-1 on the road Nov. 16. It was that victory, Weslowski said, that convinced the Bulls this season could be special.
"We started to talk more after falling behind in the first half," Weslowski said. "Eventually we got the hang of what they (the Pirates) were doing and won the game. We were all a bit nervous before that game because they were supposed to be one of our tougher opponents this year. We went out there and worked together and won. That got our confidence way up."
Besides winning games, the Bulls have tried to make a difference in their community, which is a priority for Head Coach Nicole Paternostro. The Bulls have participated in the Toys for Tots program, the Myakka City Christmas parade, and they have volunteered at Parrish's Barbara A. Harvey Elementary as they read books to kindergarten students.
"A lot of the girls play club soccer and have rigorous schedules," Paternostro said. "They bond during practices and games but we want to bring them together even more as a unit when we have the chance. This program isn't just about being good at soccer. It's about being a good student athlete. You're focusing on your performance on the field but also your academics and in reaching out to the community. We have a ton of support in our community and we want to make sure we're always giving back in the ways that we can, representing our school in a positive way."
Portwood said she has enjoyed the volunteer events and she noted the team has become closer by the experience. In this program, Portwood said, players will do whatever it takes to make a difference on and off the field. That's exemplified by a player like freshman Ashley Wagner, who was asked by the coaching staff to play defense even though she grew up playing on the wing. Portwood said Wagner was initially hesitant about the switch but took to it like a natural.
"Anywhere Coach (Paternostro) puts her, she's going to succeed," Portwood said. "She does the best she can do and never complains about it."
It's another example team-first soccer, and another factor that has led to an unbeaten start.
"Our school is welcoming," Paternostro said. "Every time a girl wants to play, we find a role for her on our team. It might not be for them to be on the field, but they want to be a part of this. Creating an experience for them that is positive and fun is important, and I think we've done that. It's just our school's personality."
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.