The Lake Placid Green Dragons haven’t achieved the success they’ve had in recent years by being a one-dimensional team. If you play for coach John Merlo, you’re going to play offense and defense or you’re not going to play at all.
Nobody bore that out more this season that the Green Dragons’ Stephanie Bennett, who led the county in scoring from her right-midfield position. She netted 11 goals and five assists for a county-best total of 27 points for the season.
“Stephanie is an unbelievable offensive player,” Merlo said. “She was a team leader and a very important part of running our offense.”
Bennett’s play helped the Green Dragons advance to the regional playoffs when many people — including the Lake Placid coaches — thought this might be a rebuilding season. She saved her best for when it mattered most, scoring two goals and having an assist in the team’s 3-2 overtime victory against DeSoto in the district semifinals, which guaranteed the team a place in the regional quarterfinals.
“Stephanie is a great player and we only expect her to get better for next year,” Merlo said.
For her accomplishments, Bennett has been selected as the 2013 Highlands Today All-Highlands Girls Soccer Player of the Year.
Haylee Peters, sophomore, Sebring: Peters led the Blue Streaks in scoring with 26 points on 12 goals and two assists, to go along with 54 steals. She had a knack for scoring key goals, with several game winners, and will be a force for two more seasons.
“She was the team’s best all-around player,” said coach Richie Birdsall.
Esther Arnold, senior, Avon Park: Arnold has been a steady force for the Red Devils the past few seasons and established herself as a true team leader, while playing whichever position she was asked.
“Esther is a quality player and a good leader,” said Avon Park coach Chris Sboto. “She’s respected by her fellow players and that’s very important as a captain of the team.”
Rosa Ramierez, sophomore, Lake Placid: Ramirez was stellar as the Green Dragons’ sweeper, but also had the ability to push up front, tallying four goals on the season.
“She is a great defender, one of the best defenders I have ever coached, but she can also be an offensive threat if needed,” Merlo said.
Heather Bloemsma, senior, Sebring: Bloemsma was a strong two-way performer for the Blue Streaks, scoring four goals and having 34 steals on her way to being named the team’s co-MVP.
Michelle Hunter, senior, Lake Placid: Hunter had seven goals and three assists for the Green Dragons and gave them a physical presence on the pitch.
“She was one of the most aggressive players that has ever played for me,” Merlo said. “She never stops fighting for the ball and goes hard every play, even if it means knocking you down to get to the ball.”
Tiffany Card, senior, Avon Park: The Red Devils were a much better defensive team this year than in past seasons and one reason was the return of Card after a two-year absence.
“She did very well defensively and helped keep us in games,” Sboto said.
Julia Van Fleet, freshman, Sebring: Van Fleet was an offensive force for the Blue Streaks, scoring nine goals, including the game-winner in the team’s first district tournament victory since 2008.
Alma Perez, senior, Lake Placid: Perez had a solid season from her midfield position for the Green Dragons.
“Alma did a great job at center-mid controlling the ball,” Merlo said.
Taryn O’Bannon, senior, Sebring: O’Bannon was one of the stalwarts of the Blue Streaks’ defense and had 48 steals and also scored a goal.
Rosa Cuellar, junior, Avon Park: Cuellar faced plenty of shots as the Red Devils’ goalkeeper and came up with some big saves to keep her team in some games.
“She’s really grown as a player,” Sboto said. “She wants to be good and has a lot of determination.”
Mariana Becker, junior, Sebring: Becker made the transition from forward to defense and came up with some big plays for the Blue Streaks during the year. She had 46 steals and one goal and was named the team’s co-MVP.
Sonia Becerra, junior, Lake Placid: Becerra made huge strides for the Green Dragons and took over the starting left-midfield position during the season.
Holly Scherlacher, senior, Sebring: Scherlacher was a physical force in the Blue Streaks’ backfield and finished with 26 steals on the season.
Rebecca Hall, sophomore, Avon Park: Hall was one of the key defenders for the Red Devils this season.
“She was the mainstay of our defense,” Sboto said. “She prevented a lot of goals and was very relentless most of our games.”
Ashley Longabaugh, senior, Sebring: Longabaugh fought through an injury-filled season but still had 16 steals and was a key player for the Blue Streaks.
“We were a much stronger team when she was on the field,” Birdsall said.
Tamija Douglas, freshman, Lake Placid: If there was one position the Green Dragons had questions about entering the season it was goalkeeper. But Douglas didn’t just answer the call, she responded in a big way — recording six shutouts and only allowing 24 goals on the season.
“Tamija has natural reflex abilities and is a tremendous athlete and leader,” Merlo said. “She was nominated by the team to be a captain for the district and playoff run. The most ironic thing about this girl is she had never played soccer but has proven to be one of the best goalies, both boys and girls, that I have ever coached.”
Kristina Williams, senior, Sebring: Williams was one of the Blue Streaks’ most dependable players during the season from her midfield position, and had 17 steals and one goal.
Josianne Fils, senior, Avon Park: Fils scored a pair of goals for the Red Devils during the season and helped keep opposing defenses honest.
Mary Grace Bates, freshman, Lake Placid: Bates made a quick impression for the Green Dragons, scoring 11 goals and having one assist.
“This young lady is the future of our team,” Merlo said. “After not playing soccer for four years, it will be fun to see how much better she will be next year.”
Shannon Bloemsma, sophomore, Sebring: Shannon Bloemsma came up big for the Blue Streaks all season long, finishing with a 1.71 GAA in 23 games and helping the team advance to the semifinals of the district tournament.
Hannah Waller, junior, Lake Placid: Waller had six goals and three assists, while playing strong in the middle of the field for the Green Dragons.
Brittany Egan, junior, Avon Park: Egan had a strong season for the Red Devils from her midfield spot.
“Brittany is a very good midfielder,” Sboto said. “She played through pain all year long. She does what she needs to do and I’m expecting a lot from her next year.”
Jenna Blount, junior, Lake Placid: Blount played stopper for the Green Dragons but was a strong two-way threat.
“She was a tremendous force in the middle and also has a very powerful leg that netted us three goals and four assists,” Merlo said. “She will be a key player next year.”
Kelby Mahoney, junior, Sebring: Mahoney tallied three goals for the Blue Streaks from the midfield and also had 11 steals.
Samantha Phypers, senior, Lake Placid: Phypers played in the backfield for the Green Dragons and was able to play either side.
“Sam did a tremendous job at defense for us,” Merlo said. She is a very physical player and will be missed next year.”
Sarah Smith, junior, Sebring: Smith had a steady year for the Blue Streaks and was strong on offensive and defense. She netted two goals and one assist to go along with 10 steals.
Claire LeBlanc, junior, Lake Placid: Leblanc scored a pair of goals for the Green Dragons and was able to move wherever the team needed her.
“Claire has great hustle,” Merlo said. “She will fight for the ball, and she plays both sides of the field, left and right.”
Lacey Watson, freshman, Sebring: Watson had one goal and five assists for the Blue Streaks in her freshman season and is part of the team’s youth movement that has Birdsall excited for the future of Sebring soccer.
Eden Taylor, sophomore, Lake Placid: Taylor turned into the team’s shutdown defender in her first year with the Green Dragons.
“I put her on the opposing team’s No. 1 players and Eden would shut them down,” Merlo said. “I see nothing but great things for her. She has strength, speed and grit.”
Lori-Ann Love, freshman, Avon Park: Love is a speedster from her forward position and Sboto believes she has a bright future in the sport.
“Her speed makes her a threat when she gets near the ball,” he said.
Brittany Fraginals, sophomore, Lake Placid: Fraginals was moved to defense midway through the season and really started to excel for the Green Dragons.
“She has blossomed into an exciting player for the Dragons because of her speed and aggressiveness,” Merlo said. “She will be a key player for next season.”
It wasn’t too long ago that if you wanted to see the Avon Park girls in action you had better get there before halftime when the game was likely to be stopped by the mercy rule. That wasn’t the case with this year’s Red Devils’ team, who made their competition come to play, earning their respect.
“Avon Park has really improved,” Birdsall said after his team came away with 4-0 and 5-0 victories against the Red Devils this year — one year after the Blue Streaks won a pair of 8-0 decisions. “Chris has done a great job over there. They’ve been a lot more competitive this year.”
For his role in the Red Devils’ turnaround, Avon Park coach Chris Sboto has been selected as the Highlands Today All-Highlands Girls Soccer Coach of the Year.