TAMPA -- The collection of legs completing a 2-mile jog on Gaither High's track this overcast Monday afternoon is bereft of even one limp.
Granted, some of these Cowboys soccer players are nursing tweaked hamstrings or sore backs, but none are hobbling noticeably. For coach Eric Sims, that observation itself seems as surreal as the north Tampa sky is cloudy.
Only 10 months ago, his top sweeper and goalkeeper were a surgically constructed cluster of boots and braces, screws and scars, pins and patellar transplants. The chance of having neither available for the 2010-11 season seemed real. The chance both would return at full strength by the season opener seemed ridiculous.
Twelve victories and nine shutouts later, Sims grins and nods in mild astonishment as raindrops splatter on the track. Senior keeper John Nardozzi and junior sweeper Jacob Snidle, virtually immobile last spring, have been mostly impenetrable this winter.
And perhaps not coincidentally, Gaither is 12-2-2.
"I think this is the best year we've had defensively since I've been here," said Sims, a former Jesuit and University of Tampa standout in his 10th season with the Cowboys. "You know, those guys battling back from those injuries have been big."
Snidle's battle spanned two years. A 175-pound junior with shaggy brown hair and a budding beard, he was playing center-back for his club team at Ed Radice Park in the summer of 2008 when a shoulder-to-shoulder nudge with an opponent caused his left knee to turn awkwardly.
"I just heard multiple pops," he said.
An ACL tear was discovered, requiring surgery in which a long part of his left hamstring was doubled over and transplanted for extra sturdiness. Thirteen months later, at a camp in Atlanta, Snidle was attempting a throw-in when he heard another perilous pop.
He had partially re-torn the ligament. Snidle continued trying to play with a brace before his family turned to another doctor, Tampa Bay Rays orthopaedic surgeon Koco Eaton. In September 2009, Eaton replaced the fresh damage with part of Snidle's left patella tendon.
"He had been playing for a while with no ACL and did not know it," said Snidle's dad, Howard. "It was flapping in the wind according to Dr. Eaton."
More rehab followed, during which time Snidle, whose grades had fallen to an unacceptable level as a sophomore, re-committed himself physically and academically.
In 16 matches, Snidle has a goal and six assists. His most recent progress report showed four As and three Bs. Meantime, Sims has gradually increased his onfield responsibilities, asking Snidle to direct Gaither's attack from the rear instead of merely clearing balls out.
"I want him to kind of run the show and kind of dictate the tempo of the game from back there," said Sims, whose team joins 15 other county schools in the Wharton Invitational starting Saturday.
"He's good enough to do it and I think he's getting back to where he's used to the speed."
Ten months ago, speed wasn't nearly as much an aspiration for Nardozzi as standing. During an evening practice with his club team at Ed Radice last March, his left cleat remained implanted in the turf as the rest of his body lunged forward.
He had broken his left ankle joint, as well as his left tibia and fibula. Two days later, he had surgery.
"They took a long pin and they put it across my whole ankle joint," said Nardozzi, a Times second-team all-county keeper as a junior. "And then they put a plate with seven screws going up my whole side."
Nardozzi spent the ensuing two weeks in a soft cast, followed by another eight in a normal cast before being fitted with a walking boot. He endured tedious rehab during that stretch, but didn't attempt serious running until a month into the school year.
About a month later, he reassumed his starting spot in the net. In 1,175 minutes, he has allowed only 10 goals for a 0.68 goals-against average. Like his best friend and fellow surgery survivor, he hasn't missed a match this season.
"I wouldn't have believed it (10 months ago), not at all," Nardozzi said.
"We both planned on coming back hard. ...We just never thought how good we were going to be together again."
Teams: Sickles, Bloomingdale, Lennard, Berkeley Prep, Newsome, Jesuit, Plant, Freedom, Wharton, King, East Bay, Steinbrenner, Durant, Gaither, Hillsborough, Strawberry Crest
Saturday -- Pool play (matches begin at 11:30 a.m. at Temple Terrace 301 Fields)
Tuesday -- Pool play (matches begin at 9 a.m. at Temple Terrace 301 Fields)
Wednesday -- Semifinals at Wharton High, 6 and 8 p.m.
Thursday -- Third-place game at Wharton, 6 p.m.; championship at Wharton, 8 p.m.