LITHIA — When their legs are tired and breaths short, Newsome's girls soccer players think back to February.
"We say to ourselves, 'This is the fourth quarter against George Jenkins, the last five minutes,' " said senior midfielder Karina Gutsche, referring to the Wolves' 4-2 Class 5A region final loss. "We're always thinking about that."
Last year's Newsome team, which had to replace nine starters, was thought to be too young to return to the region final a third straight season. In what might have been the biggest surprise of the season, the Wolves did but fell to nationally ranked George Jenkins for the third straight year.
This season, the Wolves lost one senior and expect to get to state for the first time since 2005.
"It's our last year," said Gutsche, one of five seniors. "We've been to that regional final three years in a row. This is the year to change it. We've had the same ending since our freshman year, and we want to change that."
The Wolves are loaded with talent. Two seniors — Gutsche (Florida) and outside back Lindsay Lesavage (Loyola-Maryland) — are Division I-A recruits. Newsome's junior class is its most gifted, with six players with legitimate college aspirations.
And coach Kelly Townsend, in her fourth season, has plenty of young players looking to get on the field, including freshman goalkeeper Alexis Smith, who is expected to push starter Teena Fehling for playing time.
"There's definitely competition throughout," Townsend said. "We go up against 11 good players in practice. A lot of teams don't have that. At any point in time, I could probably have an entirely different lineup depending on the situation. We're definitely very flexible this year."
Townsend also said the Wolves, who were unbeaten in their first 12 games last year and finished 17-4-4, have been her hardest-working team in practice.
"They don't take anything for granted, even the success early on from last year," she said. "They were all very humble about it. They want it. They put the hours in on the field, much more so than any team I've had here."
Townsend is a stickler for fitness, and at the end of every practice, which ends with conditioning work, her players are more than happy to comply, hoping it will make the difference this February.
"If we run an extra hour of practice, it's worth it," Lesavage said. "That's what motivates us when we run.
"We want to pick up where we left off and go farther than that. We definitely have the potential to do it."
Preseason top five
1. Newsome: The Wolves lose one senior from a young team that surprisingly advanced to the Class 5A region final.
2. Plant: A potent attack will make up for an untested defense for the Panthers, who fell to Palm Harbor University in last year's 6A region semis.
3. Steinbrenner: The Warriors outscored opponents 111-7 heading into last year's region tournament and look to improve on a 4A region semi berth.
4. Tampa Prep: The Terps return most of last year's Class 2A state finalist team, including the county's top goal scorer in Colby Maffei.
5. Berkeley Prep: The Class 3A runnerup loses 10 seniors but returns arguably the two most-talented players in Bryane Heaberlin and Taylor Richardson.
Players to watch
F Caroline Bado, Plant: The sophomore striker shared the team lead with 14 goals as a freshman.
F Alexis Bredeau, Steinbrenner: She scored 23 goals and had 16 assists last year, moving up from midfield.
M Caroline Evers, Newsome: The set-piece specialist had 12 goals and 13 assists and was 5-of-5 on penalty kicks.
F Cici Gonzalez, Steinbrenner: She led the high-scoring Warriors with 29 goals and 25 assists last season as a sophomore.
M Karina Gutsche, Newsome: The Florida commit led the Wolves with 18 goals and 16 assists.
GK Bryane Heaberlin, Berkeley Prep: The junior spent the summer with the U.S. U-20 team in the World Cup.
F Colby Maffei, Tampa Prep: The junior net-filler led Hillsborough County with 44 goals and 98 points last season.
M Jackie Rosenthal, Tampa Prep: The engine of the Tampa Prep offense is healthy again after missing half of last season with a knee injury.
D Taylor Richardson, Berkeley Prep: The Vanderbilt commit is the Bucs' top returning scorer with 16 goals and seven assists.
D Jackie Simpson, Newsome: She will move to stopper from sweeper this year after a breakout season as a sophomore with 15 goals.
D Isabel Vazquez, East Bay: The junior leads a physical Indians defensive wall that will frustrate offenses all season.
F Connor Zwetsch, Plant: After 14 goals and six assists last year, the Florida State commit will be asked to lead the team.