Meggie Dougherty Howard was such a good soccer player growing up that she played on boys' teams until she was 17 years old. Kaylan Marckese was such a good goalkeeper that she skipped her senior season so she could play college soccer.
Dougherty Howard, who went to St. Petersburg Catholic and played her freshman and senior years on the Barons' soccer team, is now a senior midfielder at the University of Florida. Marckese, who went to St. Petersburg and played volleyball and soccer for the Green Devils, is a now a sophomore at Florida and the Gators' starting goalkeeper.
Both have had a big impact for Florida (16-4-1), which is playing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed. Florida hosts Wisconsin (9-4-8) on Friday.
Dougherty Howard was named first-team all-Southeastern Conference and was also voted the SEC tournament's most valuable player. She had a career-high six goals, 10 assists and 22 overall points. Against Florida Gulf Coast in the NCAA Tournament first round, she scored a goal in a 3-0 win.
Marckese has played every minute in goal this season. She has nine shutouts, including the tournament win, and was twice named the conference's defensive player of the week.
Along with freshman Julia Lester, a former Academy of the Holy Names grad who was named to the SEC all-freshman team and who also scored against Florida Gulf Coast, and freshman Haillie Lower of Tampa Prep, the Tampa Bay area has made a big impact in Gainesville.
"It's really cool to have a group of girls from the bay area on the team," Dougherty Howard said. "We have that bond, that connection. It just shows that girls from our area can get to this level if they put their mind to it."
After a stellar club career with both Strictly Soccer in St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay United, Dougherty Howard joined the Gators in 2013. As a freshman, she fit in right away. She played in every match at midfield and started the final 20 games.
Since then, Dougherty Howard has not missed a match at Florida.
"It's gone by super fast," she said. "We've all been trying to make the most of it. In this senior class there are a lot of different personalities and characters who all bring something to the program. We're all trying to make the most of the time we have left."
Dougherty Howard plans to graduate in December with a degree in management. When she finally does leave Gainesville, she does not plan on giving up soccer. She played on the United States under-23 national team in May when it played in England.
She is likely to get taken in the National Women's Soccer League draft. Or she could perhaps play overseas. And there's even a chance in the future to play for the U.S. women's national team.
"I want to use soccer as a way to experience different cultures and see different parts of the world," Dougherty Howard said.
Marckese has just as bright a future.
Known as "Baby Kay" to her teammates, she was 17 when she graduated early from St. Petersburg. She was the youngest player on Florida's team, but it didn't take long to make an impact.
She played in 15 games her first year. Her first start was a shutout.
"When you go from high school to college it's a bigger stage," Marckese said. "There's classwork, the practices are more intense … everything. You're at a top (Division I-A) program, so there is a lot of work.
"My mind-set was to get better. I was always confident that I could play and it just took a couple of months to get to the point where other people also thought I could play."
She endured some pain that first year. She played the entire season with a torn labrum, and during the season also pulled her hamstring. Marckese has been awfully stingy this season. She has allowed just over one goal per game and has eight shutouts.
While she is fully entrenched as the starter, she said it did take some time to assert herself.
"A lot of times freshmen have a problem speaking to upperclassmen because they might not know what they're doing," Marckese said. "But I'm confident enough to feel like I know what I'm doing. And they want me to talk to them. It's a conversation during a game. We're working together.
"But it did take some time. I had to get over the, 'Oh my God, you're 21, you're so much older than me. You're going to go pro. What am I supposed to do?' "