SEFFNER — Welcome back.
That was the sentiment and message Seffner Christian girls soccer coach Frank Lopez had for Shannon Mollenhauer upon hearing the junior would be returning to a program that didn't even exist when she left.
"It was a real nice surprise," Lopez said. "Shannon went here many years back and was living over on the east coast. Her sister graduated from here last year and Shannon came over toward the end of last season. I met with her and her mother and she decided to transfer back."
So far, it's been a quite a homecoming.
Mollenhauer has led the Crusaders to an 8-2 start as of Thursday. She had 16 goals and five assists through the first 10 matches, scoring in all but one contest. Mollenhauer has three matches with a pair of goals, one hat trick and a four-goal performance against Northside Christian in the season opener.
"Shannon is a very skilled player and has a lot of knowledge regarding positioning," Lopez said. "She can strike with either foot, so I can put her either on the left or the right side."
But Mollenhauer might not have had the chance to light up Crusader scoreboards were it not for an assist from teammate and one of Lopez's daughters on the team, Bianca: Three years ago, girls soccer didn't exist at the school.
"It was something that we wanted," said Bianca, who has eight goals and five assists this season. "We just had to make it happen."
The tiny Christian school located near U.S. 92 and Mango Road offered a recreational coed soccer program, but that was it. Bianca Lopez wanted to play for her high school team. She knew of a few girls who had played club soccer and recruited others to sign a petition asking that a team be formed.
"(Bianca) really took the initiative," Frank Lopez said. "She talked with her teacher, then principal, then athletic director and showed what kind of interest there was."
The following year, the Crusaders took the field for the first time.
"We got thumped," said Frank Lopez, who was an assistant coach that first season. "A lot."
It didn't help that the schedule included local powerhouses Tampa Prep and Tampa Catholic.
"We also had some learning to do regarding scheduling," Frank Lopez said with a chuckle.
The program struggled in its first year, winning just two matches. But Lopez assumed head coaching duties last year, leading the Crusaders to nine wins last year — a total that they should easily surpass this season.
"It's very rewarding to see how far this has come," Bianca Lopez said. "We've played soccer together but, at the same time, we've also built some great relationships within the team. We're like a big family."
Like most small-school soccer programs, Seffner Christian has only a handful of club players on its roster. After Lopez's team lost 3-0 earlier in the season against Lakeland Christian, he said, "It looked like all their players had club experience, and that makes all the difference in the world at this level. For example, we have girls who are athletic here but they don't have the ball skills and touch of the club players."
The losses this season have come against district foes Lakeland Christian and Santa Fe Christian. And the Crusaders will have to get by one of those teams in the four-school district tournament if they hope to reach the postseason for the first time in school history.
"I think we have a good shot against Santa Fe," Frank Lopez said. "But we'll have to be at our very best to beat Lakeland."