Saturday, April 17, 2021

From Rags to Riches

Lady Rays seniors have seen it all

From left: Asst. Coach Darrin Palumbo, Olivia Watt, Jake Watt, Head Coach Jim Watt, Asst. Coach John Ball, Anna Chamberlin, Kirra Polley, Teagan Havemeier, Savannah Heimerl, Julia Wagner, Jenna Palumbo, Danya Zarate, Hailey Cartwright, Omar Rodriguez, Lauren Faremouth, Morgan Maile, Ellie Ball, Elizabeth Schultheis. Not pictured: Morgan Jones and Kayla Kladis Photo by Nancy Chamberlin

From left: Asst. Coach Darrin Palumbo, Olivia Watt, Jake Watt, Head Coach Jim Watt, Asst. Coach John Ball, Anna Chamberlin, Kirra Polley, Teagan Havemeier, Savannah Heimerl, Julia Wagner, Jenna Palumbo, Danya Zarate, Hailey Cartwright, Omar Rodriguez, Lauren Faremouth, Morgan Maile, Ellie Ball, Elizabeth Schultheis. Not pictured: Morgan Jones and Kayla Kladis Photo by Nancy Chamberlin

Four years ago, freshmen Kayla Kladis, Elizabeth Schultheis, Julia Wagner, Olivia Watt, and Danya Zarate joined a hapless Marco Island girls soccer team, which had gone winless the year before. Also joining was Jim Watt, a father of one of the players with no high school coaching experience. Although going winless in their first season (2014-15), this group would form the nucleus around which the team was later built. They grew to love their coach, bought into his program, and set the example for those who followed. That team learned to play the game the right way. As the team improved each year, girls coming out of Marco Island Charter Middle School (MICMS) were increasingly attracted to Marco Island Academy’s (MIA) improving program and word began spreading over on the mainland.

In the last two years, MIA added what can only be described as seven sensational players, six freshmen from MICMS and a sophomore from the mainland. Ellie Ball, Hailey Cartwright, Morgan Maile, Lauren Faremouth, Jenna Palumbo, Savannah Heimerl (a sophomore transfer), and Kirra Polley added flash, grit, and athleticism, which when added to MIA’s already stout defense, brought them their first winning season this year (12-5-1) a top three divisional finish, a win in the quarterfinals of the playoffs, and an oh so close last minute loss in double overtime in the semifinals. It was this group that solidified the Lady Rays’ standing as an elite team in the division. They became the team that nobody wanted to play. I have covered this team for three years and have grown to love all of them. Their spirited games are a big part of what makes it fun to live here.

If you like white knuckle games, eight of them were won or lost by two goals or less. If you like defense, the Rays pitched seven shutouts and allowed only 24 balls into their goal. If you like offense, the Rays scored 73 times this year, sending the ball into the nets from all areas of the field. For soccer aficionados, this was high school soccer at its best.

It was the defense though, which kept the Rays in every game. It was simply too hard to get through it. Midfielders, Watt, Heimerl, and Faremouth would as often as not, break up the opponents’ attacks before they could develop. Once through them, the opponents had to get by Jenna Palumbo and Morgan Maile, or Anna Chamberlin and, when healthy, Morgan Jones. Elizabeth Schultheis and Danya Zarate cleaned up anything that got through them, with Kirra Polley playing flawlessly in goal. It was one of the best defenses in the league.

Senior Olivia Watt seemed to be in the middle of everything, all the time. If it was a dirt field, she would have been obscured by dust. As the center midfielder she was equally adept at making passes to her strikers or turning aside opponent’s attacks. She was the sine qua non for both defense and offense and never flagged. Sophomore midfielder, Savannah Heimerl, who was perhaps the best all-around player for the Rays, combining finesse with grit, would stop attacks by stealing the ball and turning the momentum the other way. In one memorable performance, Savannah shadowed and held scoreless an opponent who had scored 53 goals against previous opponents.

Once past Watt and Heimerl, opponents came up against the some really talented midfield defenders, led by sophomores Lauren Faremouth and Jenna Palumbo, and freshman Morgan Maile. Faremouth was the immovable object and rock on defense. It was like watching waves crashing against a sea wall, as attackers came up against her, only to be stopped dead in their tracks. Palumbo was the magician on defense, winning most 50/50 loose balls and somehow, someway following up with a score. Maile always seemed to be in the right place at the right time and had a knack for following up with goals of her own. Junior Anna Chamberlin, the team’s most improved player this year, came off the bench to capably give the other defenders a rest. The team didn’t miss a beat when Chamberlin went in.

The final line of defense was seniors Julia Wagner, Elizabeth Schultheis and Danya Zarate, all of whom were fouryear starters. Zarate liked to meet the attacks as they approached the box. She would rush out to stop the ball and send booming kicks the other way, usually in the face of swarming attackers. Schultheis specialized in coming from nowhere to interrupt an opponent’s clear path to the goal at the last possible minute. It had to be frustrating for the opponents who thought they were about to get an easy shot. Wagner, cheery and upbeat, though often playing through pain, was an intrepid stopper who would not be moved or intimidated.

If all else failed, freshman goalkeeper sensation, Kirra Polley stepped up. Her athletic saves gave the entire team confidence to do whatever was necessary down the field, knowing that Kirra had their back. Even the best teams in the league had trouble with her. (Remember those seven shutouts.) I don’t recall one soft goal being scored against her. Her goal kicks and punts always seemed to reach the other end of the field. Kirra was a game changer for the Rays.

Now for the offense: Nine Rays players scored multiple goals. Two of them, sophomores, Jenna Palumbo and Savannah Heimerl could put them in from anywhere on the field, a constant headache for opponents. Palumbo had a knack for getting control of the ball on defense and then passing it downfield or scoring herself. She took all sideline toss-ins and, with a running start, had the strength to toss the ball into the opponent’s box in front of their goal. Some of Heimerl’s goals beggar description. From outside the box, from the corner, and as far as midfield, her kicks were powerful and always a threat to go in. She took all corner picks and most of the penalty kicks. She worked well with the wings and strikers, setting up many of their goals. Midfielder Watt did the same. Junior winger, Teagan Havemeier, a perennial star for the team, was out with an injury for most of the season. When she regained her health, she resumed her status as a top scorer and ball handler.

Sophomore Ellie Ball and freshman Hailey Cartwright were the cherries on top of the sundae – the sparkplugs that wore out the opponents, and gave the offense a chance to score every time down. Ball on the left and Cartwright on the right were virtually blurs as they streaked down the field in incessant footraces with the opponents to reach a ball delivered to them, usually by Watt or Heimerl. It was breathtaking to watch these two.

My selection as MVPs for this over achieving group of stars (every one of these girls was a star) would be Kirra Polley and Savannah Heimerl. In my view, those two did the most to bring a winning culture and swagger to the Rays this year. They led the way in demonstrating that the Rays could compete with anybody. Most outstanding defender would have to be Lauren Faremouth with Ellie Ball and Hailey Cartwright getting recognition for offense and for inspiration to the rest of the team. The strongest all around leader and most underrated, was Olivia Watt, who made most of the above possible. Most improved player would be Anna Chamberlin, and best all-around, Savannah Heimerl.

As this group of seniors, to whom I have become attached, exits the stage for the last time, my plans were to take a break from sports reporting for this paper. Now, I’m not so sure.

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