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As volleyball, cross country and swimming wind down on the North Suncoast, soccer has started to pick up. Here’s a look at some of the players and teams to watch this winter:
Players to watch
Jesse Zellers, Mitchell: The senior defender played in 21 games last season and is one of the area’s top athletes, earning second-team all-North Suncoast honors in the triple jump.
Robert Castillo, Wiregrass Ranch: The senior midfielder has experience and played well in the season opener, racking up two assists in a 7-2 win over Land O’Lakes.
Sean Young, Land O’Lakes: The dynamic senior earned second-team all-conference and all-North Suncoast honors last winter. He’s already committed to play at North Florida, where he’ll join Jake Frahm, his Gator teammate last season.
Connor Gilboy, Sunlake: The senior forward has drawn Division-I interest as a football kicker and racked up 27 goals last winter.
Carlos Riojas, Pasco: Riojas scored seven goals last year and is off to a good start during his senior season, recording a hat trick against Hudson. He’ll be one of the leaders for a Pirate team that should be among the North Suncoast’s best.
Teams to watch
Wiregrass Ranch: The Bulls return eight starters from last year’s team and have plenty of depth. Look for big seasons out of junior Bryce Wilson, senior Andres Hernandez, junior Matt Bradshaw and senior Mitchell Oliveri. Wiregrass’ season-opening 7-2 win over Land O’Lakes could be a good omen for Dave Wilson’s squad.
Academy at the Lakes: The Wildcats struggled last year but return junior Alex Burnham, last season’s leading scorer. Can a young Academy at the Lakes team continue to build under new coach Eddie Oyakhilome?
Land O’Lakes: Mark Pearson’s Gators have long established themselves as the North Suncoast’s top program and are coming off of the program’s second trip to the state title game. But Land O’Lakes lost a lot of talent, including four college recruits — and two Division I signees.
Hudson: The growing Cobras struggled in a loss to Pasco this week but have strong pieces, including senior defender Owen Derksen, junior midfielder Nathan Binder and sophomore forward Cody Straquadine. A deep push in the district tournament isn’t out of the question.
Sunlake: The Seahawks are loaded and return sophomore Connor Spencer and senior goalkeeper Brandon Jungbauer. Don’t be surprised if Sunlake makes another run to the region semifinals — or beyond.
Players to watch
Kendra Secrest, River Ridge: The senior midfielder earned first-team all-North Suncoast honors last season. She finished with 20 goals — including the winner in double overtime that sent her team to its first region final.
Katie Hellman, Bishop McLaughlin: The senior forward tallied 36 points last year and will have to fill the void left by star Spencer Valdespino, now at Nicholls State.
Emily Myers, Nature Coast: The senior forward led Hernando County with 20 goals last year. She’ll have plenty of help on a Sharks team that should be the county’s best again.
Berlin Waters, Wiregrass Ranch: Her 23 goals and 10 assists as a junior helped a banged-up Bulls team last year. She’ll be a key part of a stacked Wiregrass team this winter.
Catherine Gray, Land O’Lakes: She finished with 23 points last season and earned all-county consideration on a solid Gators team. She’s already scored once this year and has more to come.
Teams to watch
River Ridge: The Royal Knights have already earned coach Skip Glover’s 150th career victory and are coming off of their best season in school history — a run to the region finals. But River Ridge returns only three seniors (Secrest, Brittany O’Leary and Tiffany Hulse), so a young squad will have to pick up the slack early.
Springstead: The Eagles added former MLS player David Hayes as an assistant to aid a team brimming with potential. Senior Kayla Montealegre earned all-North Suncoast consideration last winter, and coaches are high on freshman Samantha Betters.
Mitchell: The Mustangs return three of last winter’s top players — senior Danielle Misener, sophomore Amanda Hayes and junior Danielle Gottwik. They’ll be loaded and could improve from last year’s region semifinal appearance.
Sunlake: The maturing Seahawks have some strong players, including junior defenders Carly Hill and Cassidy Place and senior goalie Maya Kamat. Sunlake is off to a solid start, with a shutout win over Pasco and a draw with Freedom.
Fivay: The Falcons have wins over Weeki Wachee and Anclote to start the season. Key contributors include captains Gina Zizzo, Lindsay Vescio and Nicole Moran, and Fivay has its best goal keepers in the program’s brief history.
Photo courtesy of the Gainesville Sun: Eastside's Alexander Fethiere and Land O' Lakes' Sean Young, front, vie for the ball during last year's region final.
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.