The differences are so minor they almost go unnoticed. A switch of players a change in tempo a subtle variance in style on attack or defense.
But make no mistake: This year's Lakewood girls soccer team is unlike any other before it.
"We're more (unified), we work the whole field and we rely more than ever on communication and team play," said Lakewood coach Bill Carter, whose squad will make its first Class 3A state tournament appearance today at 6 p.m. against top-ranked Fort Lauderdale-St. Thomas Aquinas. "We did set some of the same goals that the teams before this one had, but in (execution) we have become very different."
Lakewood (20-3-2) began this season much the way it had two of the previous three: with talent to burn, district and region titles in the bag and designs on the 3A state crown. Last season and in 1989, the Spartans faded in the sectional round. This time, boosted by a newfound unity, they have powered to state.
Surprisingly, the team's sturdiness has come from the group of players who in preseason looked to be the shakiest: a confident and aggressive band of converted midfielders, all of whom have mastered the skills the position demands.
Former forwards Emily Clark and Kristin Dobbs and ex-goalkeeper Diana Alvarez possess the toughness to knock opponents off 50-50 balls, the determination to convert stray passes into possessions, and the dribbling skills to merge effectively into the offense.
And because the set-up is so smooth, the Spartans are producing more efficiently than ever. Lakewood's offense, in past post-seasons a star-and-subordinate-cast show, this year offers fun to everyone.
Leading scorer Julie Schramek (21 goals) has the team's deadliest shot from any range, but, often as not, she will lay off a pass to someone in position to score. Fellow forwards Jennifer Vieira and Holly Sulte, who, like Schramek, can be either methodical or explosive, have combined for 31 goals.
If any facet of Lakewood's game has remained the same it is a defense that, for the second consecutive season, is Pinellas County's best.
Sophomore goalkeeper Sara Kesler, so calm and collected as the team's communication general, exudes unbridled ferocity in the face of an attack. In the same mode, fullbacks Courtney Silva, Angela Brames, Carrie Nicks and Tara Pickhardt offer opposing strikers two choices: Either give the ball up peacefully and move out of the danger zone, or stick around, get squeezed out and shut down.
"Overall, Lakewood is the best defensive unit we faced all season," said Clearwater Central Catholic coach Randy Buckstein, whose fourth-ranked team _ Pinellas' most lethal scoring squad _ managed just three goals in four games against Lakewood this year. "They get back real well. They're quick and aggressive and they go to the ball well. They limit your opportunities in a lot of different ways. They just always do what they have to do."
Tonight, what Lakewood must do is shut down perhaps the hottest team in the state. Aquinas, winner of the 1990 3A crown, brings a 22-2 record into its fifth straight state tournament _ which just happens to be going on in its hometown. The Raiders have surrendered just five goals all season and have a trio of forwards who have netted almost 70.
Previous Spartans teams might have looked at these odds and gotten the shakes. This bunch likely will face the challenge without so much as a blink.
"We don't really get intimidated by any teams any more," said Dobbs, a senior. "We're really excited about getting to state. We feel confident, but we're not overconfident. We just have to go out and play our best, and just keep playing together."