In some ways, the Lakewood Ranch High girls soccer match against Manatee looked more like a football game.
A Mustangs player would send a deep pass down the field, as a teammate would sprint past the Hurricanes defense to catch up to the ball — carefully avoiding an offsides call — like a wide receiver getting open on a go route. The player would then make a move on the goalkeeper, firing a shot into the back of the net.
Different variations of this scenario played out 10 times.
And that was in the first half.
The sport's mercy rule ended the game there, at 10-0, but the Mustangs (11-0-1) were scoring at will on Manatee (0-11). The Hurricanes were not Lakewood Ranch's toughest competition this season, but other teams have not fared much better. The Mustangs are outscoring opponents 68-4 and 28-0 over their last four games.
A 0-0 tie with North Fort Myers High (7-2-3) on Dec. 8 is the only blemish on the Mustangs' record and is one of just two games to be decided by one goal or less, the other being a 2-1 win over Saint Stephen's Episcopal (9-2) on Nov. 29. The team's dominance has made an impression on MaxPreps. The Mustangs are ranked No. 3 in Class 7A as of Jan. 14.
Between the team's recent play and its ranking, Lakewood Ranch has its eyes on a potential state championship run. The Mustangs have had consistently strong regular seasons under Coach Delaney Riggins, who took over the program in 2018, but have bowed out of the postseason earlier than they would like. Last year, Lakewood Ranch finished the regular season 13-3-3, but fell 1-0 to Palm Harbor University High in the regional semifinals.
The leaders of the Mustangs feel this year can be different.
"We're more technical than we were last year," senior captain Regan Kelly said. "We have a lot of speed up top with Sophie (Lemus, junior captain). We can play a lot of ways. So it's not that we have more depth, but we're more varied."
Kelly said under Riggins the team does not have a set strategy of what it wants to do on the attack — in contract to the Mustangs boys team, which uses Coach Vito Bavaro's signature three-man weave to great effect.
Instead, the girls team finds its opponent's weakness prior to each game and exploits it, resulting, ideally, in not just goals but an advantage in possession time.
The less the other team has the ball, the less chances they have to score. The strategy has worked as well as it ever has this season thanks to the Mustangs' variety of skill players. Against Manatee, the team used its natural talent advantage to end the game early. Against better teams, playing a more finesse game and finding holes in the defense might be required.
Lemus leads the team with 15 goals, but six Mustangs have at least four goals. Seniors like Kelly patrol the midfield and make sure opponents don't get any easy goal-scoring opportunities in transition while also setting up the team's forwards. Goalkeeper Amelia Gumerova, a junior, has only been forced to make 3.4 saves per game, but she's come up big when needed.
"Everyone brings different characteristics," Kelly said.
As intense as the Mustangs can be on the field, their players take things in stride off the field, not paying any mind to things that don't break their way — or, in one case, things that break completely.
Before the team's game against George Jenkins High on Nov. 15, Lemus was caught in a bus toilet malfunction that sprayed water over her game uniform. After laughing off the incident with her teammates, Lemus refocused. There was no time to change so she just had to play. The Mustangs won the game 4-0, and Lemus recorded a goal and an assist. Lemus said the water incident is her favorite memory from the season, at least so far.
She and her teammates would like the team to be a memory-maker for more of the student body, too. At the Manatee game, only the girls' parents lined the stands. Kelly said sometimes the team will get a mention on the morning announcements, but otherwise, the hallways are not exactly buzzing with girls soccer fever despite the team's ascendance.
"It would be nice to have a bigger crowd, for sure," Kelly said.
The Mustangs are not sure why their games don't draw more fans. Whatever the reason, the school now has a chance to hop on the bandwagon before a potentially deep playoff run. Lakewood Ranch has three regular season games remaining as a tune-up. The toughest of the three should be a road game against Parrish Community High, which is 13-4 and ranked No. 7 in Class 5A by MaxPreps. Then again, the Mustangs have already beaten the Bulls 4-1 on Dec. 12.
Lemus said she expects the Mustangs to see Palm Harbor (11-0, No. 2 in Class 7A) in the regional tournament again this year. Lemus said she and Kelly have friends on Palm Harbor from club soccer who have not let the duo forget how last year went.
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.