LITHIA — Taylor McNeff remembers standing with a friend on the metal bleachers, a seventh-grader swept up in the frenzied atmosphere of a packed stadium witnessing a classic between nationally ranked teams.
Three years ago, the Newsome girls soccer team waltzed through the regular season undefeated. The Wolves won two district and two region playoff matches by a combined 30-0 score, easily advancing to a region final showdown at home against George Jenkins.
Newsome, ranked No. 4 in the ESPN Rise Fab 50, opened up a 2-0 lead on the third-ranked Eagles and held on for a 2-1 victory that sent the Wolves to the state semifinals for the second time in school history.
“Watching that game, to see how much they wanted it and how hard they worked to get there definitely made me really excited to come and be a part of the team,” McNeff said.
Karli Gutsche was there too, her older sister Karina a standout center-midfielder for a Wolves team that finished the 2010-11 season as Class 5A state runnerup, the highest achievement in the program’s short lifetime.
“Seeing them go to states makes me want to get there so bad,” Karli said. “I think we can make it. I think we can get that far.”
Karli Gutsche, McNeff and her young teammates are leading a revival of sorts at Newsome.
The Wolves are 8-0 this season, winning consecutive matches against Plant, Plant City and Steinbrenner, three of Hillsborough County’s best teams.
The Wolves have scored 45 goals and are averaging nearly six a game. They’ve allowed just two.
And they’re doing it with a roster filled mostly with underclassmen.
Sophomore Lindsey Eaton leads the team with 10 goals. Freshman newcomer Peyton Smith has seven, including both goals in a 2-1 win against Plant and the lone tally to beat Plant City 1-0.
Gutsche, a junior stopper committed to Auburn, and McNeff, a sophomore sweeper, drive a defense that has shut out six of eight opponents.
“They play like they’ve been here for four years,” seventh-year Newsome coach Kelly Townsend said. “And in big games, too. I mean, you can’t ask for more than that.”
The past two seasons have been disappointing for a Newsome program with ridiculously high standards, having won seven district titles and qualifying for the postseason all 10 years of the school’s existence. In 2012, the Wolves were bounced from the playoffs in the first round, their earliest postseason exit. Last season, Newsome had its run of four straight district titles snapped and again failed to win a playoff game.
“None of my freshmen or sophomores even knows what it’s like to win a district, so I think they’re hungry,” Townsend said.
The Wolves are hoping to return to the big stage this season, to play in a region final or state championship in front of a couple thousand fans. Along the way, maybe the next wave of young recruits will be watching from the stands, dreaming about the day they get to slip on a Newsome uniform.
“We still reminisce about that game against George Jenkins,” said Claire Kartheiser, one of two seniors on the team. “We want to relive that experience.”