Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Perfect Game

MIA turns up the heat

Center midfielder, Olivia Watt delivered a pass to the streaking Ellie Ball to take into the heart of FBA defense. Photos by Nancy Chamberlin

Center midfielder, Olivia Watt delivered a pass to the streaking Ellie Ball to take into the heart of FBA defense. Photos by Nancy Chamberlin

At 6 PM, on a chilly Thursday evening, December 14, 2017, most of you were in your warm homes, enjoying dinner. If so, you missed one of the greatest performances of a Marco Island Academy athletic team since the school was founded six years ago.

The Marco Island Academy (MIA) girls soccer team put on an exhibition which has catapulted them into the league’s elite. None of the players on this team will ever forget this one. Right now, the Lady Rays are far and away the greatest show in town; and it costs nothing to get in to see them. For entertainment and high drama, there is no live TV that beats this. The games are close and the drama is non-stop – never more so than MIA’s breakout 2-0 victory against First Baptist Academy, a perennial top team that, before this night, MIA had never beaten. There is no “star” on this team, but there are a lot of stars playing for it.

After the dust has settled, valiant players from both teams join hands in prayer. Photo by Barry Gwinn

After the dust has settled, valiant players from both teams join hands in prayer. Photo by Barry Gwinn

In 2014, Jim Watt took over as coach of this team. He literally had “nothing to offer but blood, sweat, and tears,” as Winston Churchill once put it. Added to this was his tremendous enthusiasm and determination to succeed. Although a good athlete, Watt knew little about soccer when he took the reins. Not a problem – MIA took whatever coaches it could get in those days. He took over a team that could barely field enough players and had never won a game. The girls knew little more about the game of soccer than their new coach. Before that first season, Watt studied every training manual and read every soccer article he could get his hands on. And, he watched countless instructional videos, all practices that he continues today. By the time the 2014 season opened, the girls knew there was a new sheriff in town, and they loved him for it.

Savannah Heimerl steals one from Melancon at midfield.

Savannah Heimerl steals one from Melancon at midfield.

Watt had brought order out of the chaos that had characterized the team, but that first year, they were no match for any of their opponents, all of whom beat them soundly. A victory in those days, and largely for the following year, was avoiding a “mercy” or having the game called after falling behind by eight goals. Being “mercied” was the ultimate humiliation.

FBA was unable to break through MIA’s defense. Danya Zarate (#11) and Teagan Havemeier stop this one before it starts.

FBA was unable to break through MIA’s defense. Danya Zarate (#11) and Teagan Havemeier stop this one before it starts.

The results were different in 2015, Watt’s second year of coaching. Word of his coaching techniques, enthusiasm, and rapport with the players was getting around. The first of three talented freshman classes added depth and experience to the team. Many of these freshmen had been playing soccer all their lives and wanted to be a part of Watt’s program. In the 2015 season, the Rays registered their first wins (three) along with a tie, tempered by only four “mercies” – 3-11-2 for the season.

2016, the third year for Watt, saw another infusion of talented freshmen. The Rays almost tripled their 2015 win total, finishing 8-9-1. They also hosted a district quarter finals game, an honor accorded only to the top teams in the league.

The 2017 season brought in arguably the most talented freshman group yet, along with a transfer from a mainland high school. Sensing possible greatness for this team, Watt issued a list of team rules and expectations for the coming season. The girls bought into it. “Do not focus on the bad or negative,” he told them, “I expect sportsmanship and respect for teammates, opponents, coaches, and referees.” He forbade alcohol and drug use and admonished his students to excuse themselves from parties where these were present. Watt even listed the dos and don’ts of dietary habits.

Lastly, Watt made clear what he expected of this year’s team. Some might think his admonitions inadequate to fire up a team to face a string of tough opponents. They would be wrong. “Have an open mind,” he told them, “Be kind. Try your best in every practice and game. Believe in yourself. Love your teammates. Love the game of soccer. Strive to make each other better. Set personal goals and achieve them. Work hard.”

Everything came together on Thursday night, December 14, against powerful nemesis, First Baptist Academy (FBA), who last year went a reported 17 and 2. It was a gripping, tense and hard fought game between two very good teams, with no quit in them. For MIA, it was the breakout from the pack game that had been a long time in coming. Both of these well-coached teams played almost flawless soccer. The first half ended in a 1-0 MIA lead on a goal by freshman, Morgan Maile, assisted by Olivia Watt on a neat downfield pass to Ellie Ball who got it to the streaking Maile. With 20 minutes to go in the second half, FBA still trailed 1-0. Then they really stepped up the pressure with a drumbeat of aggressive, furious attacks into MIA’s end of the field. It was non-stop action and must have been exhausting for both teams. It had to be disheartening for FBA.

MIA’s offense had dominated the first half. Now, in the second half, the defense took over. The skilled FBA players mounted one furious attack after another, only to see them broken up by the MIA defense, mostly before they could even get a shot off. The defense of Savannah Heimerl, Danya Zarate, Julia Wagner and freshman goalkeeper Kirra Polley has held opponents to an average of 1.5 goals per game this year. Together they have pitched a remarkable four shutouts. Every shot by FBA was either contested by Heimerl, Zarate or Wagner, or blocked by Polley.

As time ran off the clock, a frustrated FBA grew more desperate and aggressive. Watt had assigned Heimerl to guard the sensational Malaya Melancon, who according to Watt has scored 33 of FBA’s 55 goals this season (in addition to a reported 41 goals last season). “Savannah completely shut her down, said Watt, “[As a result] FBA lost their composure, while we kept ours. That was the difference. Our defense was impenetrable.” Teagan Havemeier, who scored the game clincher, agreed. “The FBA girls were clearly frustrated from the beginning when their best player wasn’t able to get through our defense,” she said. Heimerl, who was the recipient of some rough treatment from Melancon, refused to be intimidated. She deflected praise for her outstanding performance to her teammates. The coup de grace came with three minutes remaining, when Jenna Palumbo made an inbounds throw to Teagan Havemeier, who somehow got the ball out of a scrum and into the net.

MIA has now won four in a row and stands at 6-3 and 1. Unlike some opponents, they have no flashy game-changing star. Instead, they work hard and strive to make each other better – just like the coach said. The next game is on December 19 at Seacrest. The next home game is January 9.

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