The stakes were high for Mitchell at halftime Monday night when the questions began firing.
The Mustangs were clinging to a one-goal lead with their starting goalkeeper out sick. Mitchell had already doinked one shot off a post against Wiregrass Ranch and couldn’t afford more missed chances if it wanted to stay unbeaten and knock off one of the North Suncoast’s toughest opponents.
The Sunshine Athletic Conference title was likely at stake.
And Karl Kukec’s players were asking if his bald head was ever covered with hair. Or where they could find the decorated veteran coach on Twitter or Facebook.
Such is the relationship between his players and Kukec, who goes for his 200th career victory Thursday against Zephyrhills.
“The thing about Karl is, he’s a coach on the field,” sophomore Amanda Hayes said, “and off the field he’s a friend.”
Which is why Hayes and the rest of the Mustangs call the 11-year head coach by his first name, not coach Kukec. And it could be part of why Kukec has made Mitchell one of the top soccer programs on the North Suncoast.
Kukec served as an assistant coach during the program’s first two seasons. The Mustangs won 16 games and never reached the playoffs.
Since then, Mitchell has turned into a Pasco County power. The Mustangs won their first district championship in Kukec’s first year and have returned to the postseason six times since. They narrowly missed a shot at the final four in 2005 with an overtime goal by
Lakeland George Jenkins and reached the region finals three years later, too, before a 1-0 loss to Palm Bay Melbourne.
“That’s three generations of players that we’ve had,” Kukec said after Mitchell’s 2-0 win Monday over Wiregrass Ranch. “They were all very, very athletic and all very good players.”
Kukec’s lineup this year follows that tradition.
Mitchell is 11-0-1 with its only draw coming against the Royal Knights. The Mustangs allowed only three goals through the first eight contests while outscoring opponents by more than 45 goals. Mitchell is in the driver’s seat for the top seed in Class 3A, District 8 and another trip to the playoffs.
“It’s definitely exciting to be a part of a team that’s been so strong for all these years…” Hayes said. “Yeah, there’s pressure there, but at the end of the day, we’re just having fun and playing what we love to play.”
Mitchell met its high expectations last year with a trip to the region semifinals before falling to River Ridge in double overtime. The Mustangs graduated the conference and North Suncoast player of the year, Shannon Estes-Larkin, but reloaded as usual.
They boast one of Pasco County’s top talents, junior Danielle Gottwik, who has already committed to UConn, in addition to a group that’s bonded since last winter.
“I think losing people and getting new people, spending time together and getting to know your players, on and off the field, really helps,” Gottwik said.
That includes getting to know their coach better.
Hayes — a second-team all-conference selection as a freshman last winter — called her coach’s personality “crazy.” But, after 11 years and 199 wins, it’s also undeniably effective.
“Obviously that’s great for me as a coach, to have the talent,” Kukec said. “Now it’s basically to bring the talent and get them to play as a team. I think they’ve responded well.”
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.