The Riverview High girls soccer team was not the favorite to win its Florida Girls High School Athletic Association Class 7A district.
The Rams (11-4-2) were seeded third, behind North Port High (12-3-0) and Lakewood Ranch High (6-3-2)
No one gave the Rams the memo.
Riverview had big second-half performances to beat both of the teams seeded higher than they were, taking down Lakewood Ranch 3-2 in the district semifinals, then coming out victorious against North Port High 2-1 in the district title game. It's the Rams' first district title win in 18 years.
Junior midfielder Rachel Paule came up clutch in both contests, netting two goals against Lakewood Ranch, including the game-winning penalty kick, and scoring the go-ahead goal against North Port with less than six minutes remaining in the contest. Paule now has a team-high 14 goals this season. But make no mistake: The Rams getting this far has been a team effort, starting with its defense.
"We have been on top of it since (December) defensively," Head Coach Joe St. Onge said. "That translates to more control of the ball. That was the first thing that got us going."
The team's defense got a boost when senior Majestic van Ingen returned to the lineup following the school's football season; van Ingen served as one of the team's kickers, following in the cleat-steps of Allison Kukanza, the first female football player to score a point for the Rams in 2020. Van Ingen's return to the soccer team was exactly what the team needed, St. Onge said. Van Ingen slotted into a center back role and immediately set the tone for the rest of the group with her steady play, he said.
Another move took the team's play to a new level as the calendar turned to 2024. St. Onge said he asked junior varsity coach Reggie Thomas to work with the varsity squad as the director of training. St. Onge said he considers himself to be proficient with the technical side of coaching, while Thomas is proficient in the tactical side of coaching. A marriage of the two, St. Onge said, could prove beneficial.
The team's January results support St. Onge's theory. The team went 7-0, including a 2-1 road win over Sunlake High (19-3) on Jan. 22; at the time of the Sunlake game, Sunlake was ranked 21st nationally by MaxPreps. But it was the district title game that served as the culmination of the months of work Riverview put into improving. After a 0-0 first half, North Port struck first in the second half, putting Riverview on its heels. The Rams did not panic. They had been down to Lakewood Ranch, too, and battled back to win. It was van Ingen who tied the game on a free kick with approximately 15 minutes to go. Then Paule intercepted a pass in North Port's defensive zone and fired a rocket at the net to put Riverview up for good.
On the field after the game, players let their emotions flow. St. Onge said several Rams started crying, the result of achieving a goal that many did not think the team could achieve.
"We knew we were evolving," St. Onge said. "It has been one game at a time."
February will bring the team new challenges. The first: A game against Palm Harbor University High (13-3-1) on Feb. 13 in the regional quarterfinals. The FHSAA ranks PHU has the No. 12 team in Class 7A; Riverview is No. 16. But thanks to winning their district — PHU lost 2-1 to Steinbrenner High — the Rams will host the game. St. Onge said PHU has high-IQ players, but the Rams have played similar teams, like Sunlake, and walked away victorious.
There's no reason the team can't do it again, he said.
"We have always been a close-knit group and we do things off the field to build camaraderie, but now I feel like we are really playing for each other," St. Onge said. "That was witnessed against North Port. Our players were so happy for each other. It is neat to see the program having that kind of impact."
Five wins away from a state championship, the Rams have already made history, and they want to make even more of it.
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.