For years, girls athletic programs in Pinellas County have worked to the side of the main stage, quietly winning games and making state tournament appearances in their seemingly forgotten sports.
They lurked in the shadows, blinded by the glare of more established, more powerful boys programs.
But if the 2010-11 school year proved anything, it’s that girls sports in this county no longer fly under the radar.
This was the year of girl power as teams took over the spotlight by capturing state titles or making serious runs at them. East Lake won a state volleyball title. Lakewood won a state girls basketball championship. And Canterbury won it all in softball.
In between, Northside Christian’s golf team and St. Petersburg Catholic’s soccer team were state runnersup. And three others made the state semifinals: Canterbury in volleyball, Seminole in soccer and East Lake in softball. Throw in Northside Christian’s third-place showing at state track and it’s clear that this past school year was one of the best ever for girls sports.
In contrast, no county boys program won a state title. There were two state runnersup (Palm Harbor University swimming and Shorecrest tennis) and two state semifinalists (Gibbs basketball and Countryside soccer), followed by fourth-place finishes at state by Northside Christian’s wrestling team and Admiral Farragut’s track team.
“It’s ladies first, isn’t that how the song goes,” Lakewood girls basketball coach Necole Tunsil said. “I think this is one the strongest years I’ve ever seen in my seven years coaching. I think the girls coaches in the county across the board are doing a good job of putting in the work in the offseason to have their teams ready to play.”
The girls playing on these teams were either toddlers or born in 1996, when women’s sports exploded in popularity after Olympic gold-medal winning performances in basketball, soccer and softball.
Professional leagues started, and there was a grass roots effort to develop athletes in these sports through club programs and travel teams. Some of those opportunities to play professionally have disappeared, but girls are still competing at the high school level in record numbers.
“We don’t have the next Michael Jordan out there,” Tunsil said. “We know there are not many pro leagues left out there and there’s a small shot of ever playing in the WNBA. The biggest thing is this is a way to pay for college. Most girls that are playing are trying to get to the next level and get a free education.”
Pinellas County has always fared well in girls sports, sending numerous teams to state tournaments each year. But there had never been a stretch in which the county won state titles in three major sports in the same school year. Better still, each of the championships ended state-title droughts of six years or longer.
East Lake, led by Lauran Eschenroeder, won the county’s first state title in volleyball since Clearwater in 2000.
Lakewood, behind the strong play of sisters Taye’lor Trotter and Tianah Alvarado, won the county’s first state girls basketball title since Boca Ciega in 1995. It also was the first time the Spartans had won since Tunsil guided them to a championship as a player in 1989.
Canterbury won the county’s first state softball title since Palm Harbor University in 2005.
And the titles came in a year in which traditionally strong girls programs like soccer and swimming were somewhat down.
“Everything goes in cycles, but as a whole this was a very good year,” said Countryside’s Kaylyn Bayly, who has coached volleyball for 20 seasons and softball for nine. “You don’t realize it until the season is over and then you add up all the titles that were won. It was pretty impressive.”
The run of championships could continue in 2011-12. All three title winners won with young teams, and soccer and swimming should power back up after rebuilding.
“The girls in this county are hungry to win,” Tunsil said. “They’ve all done well in helping put girls sports in St. Petersburg and in the county on the map.”