CLEARWATER — For the record, Countryside has been a highly capable girls soccer team for a very long time. The Cougars won a state championship in 1995. That’s why it was surprising that they had not won a district championship since 1998.
"We weren’t even a thought in our parent’s minds at that time," senior midfielder Aly Chlopek said.
The district drought came to an end this past Friday. Countryside defeated Seminole 2-1 in overtime to claim the Class 4A, District 10 title. The banner in the school’s gym can finally be updated.
"We look at that banner every day and one time we just said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to change that,’ " Chlopek said. " ‘We need to get 2018 up there.’ "
Countryside (14-1-2) will play at home against King in the region quarterfinals on Tuesday. A win there could set up a rematch with Bloomingdale, which beat the Cougars in last year’s regionals.
Winning a district championship didn’t look promising when the season started. The team improved every year since Chris Duffy took over four years ago. They had seven wins his first season, 11 in the second and 16 last season.
K.B. Weiner was the main scoring threat last season. She had 32 goals. No other player scored in double digits. With Weiner gone, Duffy put in a new style of play. The team would run a 4-5-1 with one forward up top. The scoring would have to come from many players, not just one.
Things got off to a rocky start. Countryside tied Dixie Hollins in the second game of the season. That was followed by a 1-0 loss to Largo. Chlopek, one of three team captains along with seniors Lily Conte and Erin Grass, decided it was time for a little players-only meeting.
"When we lost that game it was kind of a wakeup call," Chlopek said. "It was like, ‘Hey, you need to get your act together.’ I went home and thought about what I need to say to these girls that will make them want this as much as I do. I just told them that we lost to Largo, but it’s not the end of the world. We need to just step it up if we want to be district champs. That was a turning point."
The speech worked.
"We got serious after that game," junior midfielder Tori Clark said.
The Cougars did not lose another game. The biggest confidence boost was a 2-2 tie against Palm Harbor University, one of the best teams in the state.
"We found out that they are not all that big and bad," Chlopek said. "This huge super power that everyone talks about, well, we’re just as good as them."
Chlopek was one of the players who had to switch positions in the new format. She is called a "hybrid" midfielder by Duffy. Basically, it’s Chlopek’s job to run the length of the field playing defense and distributing the ball to the forwards.
Lily Conte and her sister, freshman Chloey, have been the beneficiaries. Each has scored double-digit goals. There are three other sister combos that contribute: Chlopek and sister Ashley, Jacey and Julia Montalvo, and Alyssa and Nicole Wirgau. And there is sophomore midfielder Lana Troung, the younger sister of former standout Lily Troung.
Getting everyone on the same page took a little time.
"It took us a few games to get into it," Duffy said. "It’s been a learning curve."
It also helps to have an athletic goalkeeper. Junior Alyssa Barnes has to be the busiest goalkeeper in the area. She not only plays for the soccer team, but is also a starter for the 19-1 basketball team. She started playing both sports last season. Despite the teams having the same winter season, Barnes manages both.
She said the practice times are different, so she can usually attend both. When there are games the same night, she will leave the soccer game at halftime if it is not close. If it is, she will bolt from the soccer game, which starts at 6, and try to play the second half of basketball.
Soccer is her main sport, and Duffy says she is "outstanding."
"I’m very lucky that I’m only a goalkeeper," Barnes said. "If I was a field player I probably wouldn’t be doing both."
With all the pieces in place, Countryside broke its 19-year district drought. In 1998, the Cougars not only won the district tournament but advanced to the region final. History could repeat itself, but either way at least the banner looks better.
"It’s was such an accomplishment," Chlopek said. "We were all so excited that we made a difference. We put something into this school, something we worked so hard at."