WESLEY CHAPEL — In order to duplicate a record-setting run in 2010-11 that saw the Wiregrass Ranch girls soccer team win its first district title and first playoff game in back-to-back weeks followed by an appearance in the region final, the Bulls expected an uphill battle having to navigate a more rugged district schedule.
The degree of difficulty was heightened when the team’s leading scorer and USF commit, A.J. Blount, was lost before the season after tearing her ACL.
Yet with the district tournament less than a week away, the Bulls enter the knockout stage with confidence and another sterling record (14-4 through Tuesday).
“We’ve been able to manage pretty well,” junior forward Berlin Waters said.
Wiregrass Ranch won 12 of 16 regular-season matches in district 4A-8 a season ago. The Bulls earned the district tournament title as the No. 2 seed.
During the offseason, though, redistricting lumped the Bulls into an exclusively Hillsborough County district (still 4A-8) that included defending Class 4A state champion Steinbrenner along with playoff participants Freedom and Gaither.
Aside from an 8-0 pasting of Chamberlain, every district game has been an 80-minute slugfest.
“Just the level of play is different, the intensity is different,” Bulls coach Erin Dodd said. “It’s almost like playing a championship game every time we take the field against these other teams.”
The Bulls have adjusted accordingly, going 3-2 through the district slate. In the losses, they battled Steinbrenner over a scoreless first half before falling 2-0 and felt they were unfortunate in a 1-0 defeat to Freedom.
Wiregrass Ranch, currently on an eight-match win streak, is the third seed for the district tournament, which starts Tuesday at Freedom.
“(The district) is more difficult, but it’s brought us more together as a team. It’s fun,” junior goalkeeper Dayton Wetherby said. “We’re trying to prove ourselves. We all rallied together knowing that these are the Hillsborough teams.”
The continued development of Waters has helped the Bulls overcome the injury to 40-goal scorer Blount. After registering 21 goals last season as the ideal complement to Blount at the top of the formation, the diminutive Waters has taken over the scoring load, averaging a goal a game with 18 scores.
Jordanyne’ Fye (seven goals), Christina Wojaczyk (four) and Hannah Eder (four) have added firepower to a much more patient offensive attack.
“We’ve been able to possess the ball very well,” Dodd said. “We haven’t been scoring as many goals as we did last year, so that possession really comes as an important aspect so we can win games by one goal or two goals.”
The defense, anchored by senior center back Sydnee Newby and junior sweeper Lauren Gordon, is stronger as well. After giving up 33 goals in 28 games last season — including four in a region final loss to Harmony — the Bulls have surrendered 11 this season, roughly one every two matches.
“We’re talking more in defense,” Wetherby said. “We just work together.”
Even without Blount, this current Bulls team is conceivably better than it was a season ago, especially considering the experience gained from a deep playoff run.
An early exit in districts, however, is a real possibility. Should they advance to the semifinals, the Bulls will be an underdog.
“We’ve had people stepping up that maybe didn’t get the opportunity last year or gained more confidence this year, which has been great,” said Dodd, a former standout at Zephyrhills and collegiate player at Memphis. “Being in a new district and playing different teams has made us realize that everybody has to play their best every game.”
Class 4A-8 at Freedom
Tuesday: No. 4 Gaither vs. No. 5 Sickles, 6; No. 3 Wiregrass Ranch vs. No. 6 Chamberlain, 8
Jan. 18: No. 1 Steinbrenner vs. Gaither/Sickles winner, 6; No. 2 Freedom vs. Wiregrass/Chamberlain winner, 8
Jan. 20: Final, 7
Class 4A-4 at Ocala Vanguard
Tuesday: No. 3 Ocala Forest vs. No. 6 West Port, 5; No. 4 Springstead vs. No. 5 Gainesville, 7
Jan. 18: No. 1 Lecanto vs. Springstead/Gainesville winner, 5; No. 2 Vanguard vs. Forest/West Port winner, 7
Jan. 20: Final, 7
Class 3A-8 at Ridgewood
Monday: No. 2 River Ridge vs. No. 7 Ridgewood, 7
Tuesday: No. 4 Gulf vs. No. 5 Fivay, 5; No. 3 Hudson vs. No. 6 Anclote, 7
Jan. 18: Hudson/Anclote winner vs. River Ridge/Ridgewood winner, 5; Gulf/Fivay winner vs. No. 1 Mitchell, 7
Jan. 20: Final, 7
Class 3A-7 at Zephyrhills
Tuesday: Sunlake vs. Pasco, 7
Jan. 18: Wesley Chapel vs. Sunlake/Pasco winner, 6; Land O’Lakes vs. Zephyrhills, 7:45
Jan. 20: Final, 7
3A-6 at various sites
Tuesday: No. 8 Weeki Wachee at No. 1 Eustis, 7; No. 5 Central at No. 4 Leesburg, 7; No. 6 Hernando at No. 3 Nature Coast, 7; No. 7 Tavares at No. 2 Citrus, 7
Jan. 18 at Citrus: Weeki Wachee/Eustis winner vs. Central/Leesburg winner, 5:30; Hernando/Nature Coast winner vs. Tavares/Citrus winner, 7:30
Jan. 20 at Citrus: final, 7
Class A-7 at various sites
Tuesday: No. 8 Academy at the Lakes at No. 1 Tampa Prep, 7; No. 7 Seffner Christian at No. 2 Bishop McLaughlin, 7; No. 6 Calvary Christian at No. 3 Carrollwood Day, 7; No. 5 Indian Rocks Christian at No. 4 Cambridge, 7
Jan. 19 at Tampa Prep: Bishop McLaughlin/Seffner winner vs. Carrollwood Day/Calvary winner, 6; Tampa Prep/AATL winner vs. Cambridge/IRC winner, 8
Jan. 20 at Tampa Prep: Final, 7