OLDSMAR — In just a few months, Brian Lugo and Carl Napoli have taken the Tampa Bay Scorpions Squirts from losing every game of their opening tournament to qualifying for the Silver Sticks Finals in Canada next month.
The duo, best known for their coaching success at Mitchell High School, have set their sights on helping hockey grow throughout Tampa Bay through younger kids. Since taking over the Scorpions Squirts squad of 9- to 11-year-olds in August, the coaches have changed the lineup. Players once labeled as forwards are thriving as defenders, and vice versa.
"We as Mitchell High School coaches probably won't benefit from developing these players because most won't go to Mitchell, but it helps hockey in Tampa Bay to have teams traveling and competing nationally and helps grow the sport here," Lugo said. "The younger you start with them, the more they understand the game as they grow up, and that's better for the sport overall."
Napoli said they have instilled a "gritty" mentality in the team. The players' hustle and willingness to work has made the difference.
"They've come a long way," Napoli said. "What makes this team good has little to do with skill. It's the fact that they're all hard workers and they're willing to play gritty and physical. Our strategy coming in was to create a solid defense and we focus on possession. We've been able to do that and now the kids are starting to have a lot of fun and find more ways to score goals."
Riley Nichols, 10, has been a member of the Scorpions since she was 4. Her parents and coaches help her make the drive down to Oldsmar from Trinity for the team's practices at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy. She is one of the team's most reliable defenders and relishes the opportunity to play with this group.
"I've been a Scorpion since I was little, so I know everyone in this group really well," Riley said. "I love the challenge of playing defense and not allowing any goals.
"It's a tough job, but I like that. With this team I can play where I want and keep learning with my friends."
Nichols and the Scorpions' Squirts squad are one of two teams, along with the Midgets (age 16 and under), to qualify for the National Silver Sticks Championship after the team won its regional qualifier in Ellenton. The championship in Ontario, Canada, will pit the kids against the best competition in North America.
"What we're looking forward to the most is seeing how the kids compete at this level," Lugo said. "Obviously, the kids from the northern states and Canada play at a very high level and it's always interesting to see how the kids from Florida measure up. It's a great experience for both the kids and the parents."