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The St. Pete Raiders under-14 soccer team's search for a league that would offer challenging play resulted in the development of the Girls Florida Champions League.
The top 12 squads from around the state were invited to participate. With just this weekend remaining in the league's season, the Raiders (8-0-1) are in first place. "This team has a high level of commitment and is strong," head coach Grant Hall said.
"I've been with the team four years and head coach the last two, and this team plays with an all-around effort," he said.
Since the league began in November, including tournaments, St. Pete is 13-2-3. It has racked up 56 goals in 18 games, allowing 17.
"We pride ourselves in our effort, from the back with goalies Lindsay Danielson and Janee Boykins to defenders Kelli Augustine, Hannah Brickse, Emma Hopp, Taylor Tremaine, Natalie Zach and Tabitha Schofield," Hall said. "We're strong defensively and offensively."
In the scoring attack, the Raiders rely on midfielders Chelsea Zimmerman, Missy Miller, Katie Kuzma, Chelsea Hatcher and Cindy Garcia and forwards Terry Miller, Katie Newman and Andrea Rodriguez.
"Some of these girls have been together since they played in the under-10 division," assistant coach and manager Jim Zach said.
"I started coaching them then, but found in a couple of years they had surpassed my expertise. That was when we decided to hire a full-time coach.
"This group is very coachable," Zach said. "They're a strong team and strong on the bench. When we sub, the play doesn't drop off a bit."
The nucleus that was started at the under-10 level includes Augustine, Boykins, Hatcher, Schofield, Tremaine and Natalie Zach.
"I play defense and have played midfield, but now I'm back to defense," Zach said. "As a defender, you have to be able to communicate with the others and be sure we're all on the same page."
When the Girls Florida Champions League concludes this weekend, focus will be directed toward the Florida Youth Soccer Association (FYSA) State Cup that begins this spring.
"We definitely want to win the State Cup and even go on to national and win it," Danielson said. "To do well, we need to step on the field and click as a team so everything comes together like magic.
"When I'm playing goalie, I've got to be mentally tough and help control the play. I can see everything in front of me, and I need to communicate."
Hall is more conservative than some of his players about the Cup competition.
"We very much under-achieved in State Cup last year, and I don't want that to happen this year," he said. "We will take every game as it comes."
GIRLS GYMNASTICS: LaFleur's of Largo placed two gymnasts on the Level 7 all-around winners platform and another in Level 8 this month in the O-Town Classic in Orlando.
Kaley LaFleur and Brynn Fullmer were first overall in Level 7. Jaime Applefield was tops in Level 8. Runners-up were Danielle Kazakos in Level 7 and Crysta Huszai in Level 8.
Finishing in the top five all-around were Wekiva Thomas, Sarena Bumbarger, Aspen Sands and Taylor Sides in Level 7; Stephanie Young, Jenna Paul and Alex Smith-Prance in Level 8; Briana Melander and Jennifer Voynovich in Level 9; and Alyssa Wright in Level 10.
Level 7 individual event winners were LaFleur (floor), Fullmer (bars), Kazakos (beam), Mariah Oakley (vault) and Sides (floor). Applefield (floor) and Huszai (vault) posted victories in Level 8, and Voynovich won (vault, floor) in Level 9.
At the Princess Classic in Port Charlotte this month, Medalist All-Star gymnast Ryann Matthews led the club with a second-place all-around award in Level 9, along with a first on beam and a third on vault and bars.
Amanda Crane joined Matthews in Level 9 with a seventh-place all-around finish.
In Level 8 competition, Dalila Lemezan and Briana Stiles were third all-around, Stacy Ostlund fourth and Marissa Bragg fifth.
Stiles won the bars event; Lemezan beam and floor.
Christine Sayler was second all-around in Level 7 and anchored by Kristina Lee in third and Jordan Jankovic in ninth.
The Tampa Bay Turners were first in Level 7 and 8 and third in Level 9 in the TBT Invitational at Bayfront last month.
The all-around champions for Tampa Bay were Jessica Beckman in Level 10, Lisa Taylor and Jenny Citrin in Level 9 and Lindsay Weber and Alyssa Collins in Level 8.
The Turners' other top-10 all-around awards were captured by Kaylene Sattanno (second) in Level 10; Natalie Mera (second), Sarah Brownlee (third), Lauren Jones (fourth), Brittany Hunt (fifth) and Brianne McKeen (sixth) in Level 9; Kirsten Chmielewski (third), Ashley Sullivan (third), Jordann Windschauer (fifth), Alyssa Adrian (sixth) and Tirzah Bailey (seventh) in Level 8; and Kirsten Jamieson (second), Barbara Simkanich (third), Deni Morgan (fourth), Annie Berdusco (10th) and Morgan Gunning (10th) in Level 7.
STARS OF THE MONTH: Area student-athletes selected for the Tampa Bay Sports Commission John Lynch Star of the Month award for January include Seminole High senior Rachel Paroulek, Shorecrest senior Aaron Connelly and Guardian Angels Catholic School sixth-grader Alicia Nalley.
Candidates are nominated by a school's teachers and coaches and judged by a selection committee on athletic, academic and community involvement.
Paroulek, 17, is ranked seventh among 450 Warhawk seniors, is a four-year soccer letter-winner and this season's co-captain. She's a certified mentor at a local elementary school.
Connelly, 17, is a member of the National, Spanish and Latin honor societies, a four-year swimming letter-winner and this year's captain. Connelly is the Shorecrest Student Council president.
Nalley, 11, has made the Principal's List the past two years, is the top scorer (14 goals in 13 games) on the Countryside Lightning under-12 girls soccer team and is active in her church's youth group.