The Braden River High boys soccer team broke out last season with an 11-4-4 record and a district championship.
It turns out, that was only the beginning.
The Pirates have taken another step forward in 2023-2024. With nine of the team's 23 players being seniors, Head Coach Braden Chandler knew the team had the potential to prove last season was no fluke.
The Pirates have proven Chandler right. Braden River began the year 11-0-0 before suffering its first loss Jan. 10, a 2-1 road game against Venice High (4-7-2) in which the team played too individual, and not as a team, Chandler said.
A 1-1 road tie against Sarasota High (6-3-4) was the result of a poor first half, Chandler said.
The results against Venice and Sarasota were not what the team wanted, but the Pirates still have plenty of belief they can put together a special season as they head into district tournament play on Jan. 24.
"This group not only wants to repeat (as district champs), it wants to go further in regionals," Chandler said. "I think that is obviously the goal. We have some talented teams in our region, but I think if we can get there, we have a good shot at surprising some people and continuing upward."
The Pirates found their success by playing lockdown defense. Braden River has allowed just six goals this season, with three of them coming in the last two games. Joseph Hannaseck, the team's senior goalkeeper, said the stout play in front of him makes keeping the other team off the scoreboard easy.
"The only way other teams can get through our defense is by playing long balls," Hannaseck said. "I'm an aggressive keeper, so I come out and pick those long balls up all the time, no problem. So we don't give up too many chances."
Senior defender Kyle Langley said the team started to believe in itself after its season-opening game against Parrish High (now 8-7) on Nov. 11, which Braden River won 1-0. The Pirates kept the Bulls off the board and allowed their offensive players to generate the one goal to win. The team is averaging 3.4 goals per game, a number buoyed by two blowout wins — 9-0 and 8-0, both against Port Charlotte High. Take out those wins and the team is averaging 2.1 goals per game.
The Pirates do not care how the wins come, only that they continue to do so. Braden River's tight defense was enough to earn a 1-0 home win against rival Lakewood Ranch High (9-6) on Dec. 11. It was the Pirates' first win over the Mustangs since 2015. Lakewood Ranch has become a power program on the Gulf Coast under Head Coach Vito Bavaro, reaching the state Final Four in 2014, 2017, 2019 and 2020. Though the Mustangs are having a lesser regular season by their own standards, getting a win over Lakewood Ranch means something to the Pirates — not just for the rest of this season, but for the future.
"People can see what we are doing here," Chandler said. "We are probably not going to get the same high numbers as (Lakewood Ranch), as far as players go. We have to work hard with what we have got. These seniors, I took them aside when they were sophomores and told them what they could be in two years. The freshmen we have now, it is the same way. They are beyond anything we have had, talent-wise. By the time that class (reaches its junior and senior seasons), I would be shocked if we were not competing for state championships, as long as they stay together and stay healthy. We are going to have a powerhouse."
Chandler has coached the team this season while dealing with personal adversity. His son, Landen Chandler, was diagnosed with Langerhans cell histiocytosis in May. The disease causes a person’s body to make an overabundance of immature Langerhans cells, which can form tumors or damage tissue, bone and organs. Braden Chandler said he considered taking a season away from coaching to spend more time with his son. It was Landen Chandler, a freshman on the school's junior varsity soccer team, who convinced his father to keep coaching.
Braden Chandler is glad he listened.
"As long as (Landen) is out and able to play, I'm glad I'm here," Braden Chandler said. "I'm enjoying it. With the year we are having, I think I would have been disappointed if I was not here for this."
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.