When he gazes down the field and sees the collection of players before him, Lecanto coach Kevin Towne just can't help himself.
He is excited. He is enthusiastic. Heck, he's downright giddy with anticipation.
"This is the strongest we've been down the middle in the girls program," Towne said. "We haven't played a game yet, and until we hit another high school team, it's hard to tell."
One thing is easy to assess _ even this early: The Panthers are loaded for 2001.
Lecanto enters tonight's game against Central with arguably the best players in the area. It is a group that starts with forward Amber Gidden and ends with talented goalkeeper Trish Chenowith, who blossomed into one of the best last season.
For the Panthers, success begins and ends with the defense and Chenowith, a Times all Citrus-Hernando selection after posting 185 saves and 12 shutouts.
Helping matters greatly is experienced defensive players, including stopper Jenny Wheeler _ who moves from sweeper _ sophomore sweeper Nikki Fields and senior fullback Teala Shelton.
"I think we have a very strong team," Chenowith said. "We've worked together for many years in club ball. As long as we work together and put our skills together, we should do well."
Lecanto has been doing well for years.
Yet there is a clear difference between doing well and defeating Citrus _ something the Panthers never have done and will have to do to capture a district title.
The key in any matchup with the Hurricanes is the midfield and controling two-time defending Times Citrus-Hernando Player of the Year Amber Presnick (29 goals, 18 assists).
That role will fall upon talented freshman Jenny Worthington. However, she won't be alone.
Flanking Worthington in the Panthers' 4-3-3 alignment are seniors Holly Johnson and Heather Vantine.
"I think we have a good offense, a good midfield and a good overall structure," Gidden said. "I don't know how complete we are yet. I guess we'll find out (tonight)."
Gidden's touch around the net will be a major factor in Lecanto's success.
Helping the standout player will be her commitment during the offseason. A Times Citrus-Hernando first-teamer, Gidden worked on improving the skills of her left foot.
"I guess we'll see how good it is (tonight)," Gidden said. "I used to be able to shoot with my left foot, and my main thing this summer was to work on my left foot.
"I'm always trying to get better because I want to go on after high school and play soccer," she said. "I'm hoping it pays off."
It has, Towne says.
"She worked hard and played a lot of ball this summer," he said. "She's really improved her left foot. If she stays healthy, I think she'll be a big asset to our team."