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Making big impact

Because Lecanto stopper Jenny Wheeler is 5-foot-5, 117 pounds, diminutive compared to other defenders, she tends to be overlooked at first by her opponents.

"A lot of people tell me they can't believe I'm a defender," Wheeler said. "I know they underestimate me."

Big mistake.

The senior, a three-year starter, is one of the area's best players. Among defenders, she has few equals on the North Suncoast.

"She's the fireplug of our team," Panthers coach Kevin Towne said. "She's a small kid, but very tough for her size."

That toughness, Wheeler said, was developed as a child.

Wheeler's older sister, Kate, a former Lecanto track star, was the larger of the two, and Wheeler said Kate often pushed her around.

"She's huge a giant," Wheeler said. "And I was always a tom-boy when I was younger. Now, I'm not, but I'm still tough."

Wheeler has been involved in bowling, softball and track, but her talents appear best suited for soccer.

Premier defenders are aggressive, fearless, quick, tough and possess field smarts. Wheeler is all of those, Towne said.

"She plays for 80 minutes and hates to lose," Towne said. "That's one of the best things about her."

Wheeler, who has thrived under the direction of defensive assistant Willie Bulgin, had seven goals with one assist last winter in helping lead the Panthers to the district championship.

In the final, she drew the unenviable assignment of covering Citrus midfielder Amber Presnick, the area player of the year. Presnick's lone goal came in the 78th minute as Lecanto won 2-1.

"She strives to shut down the best opponents," Towne said. "I think Amber Presnick would be the first to say that Jenny is one of the few to shut her down. She likes to stop the best.

"With her out there, we don't have to shadow people the way we used to. Jenny picks them up in the scoring area and takes care of it."

Wheeler played defender in youth soccer, but coaches moved her to offense when she arrived at Lecanto. She started for the junior varsity as a freshman, but was called to the varsity toward the end of the season.

"She always went to the ball and played physical," Towne said.

Despite her success on offense, Wheeler asked for a switch to defense the following season. The Panthers had graduated several defenders, and Wheeler thought she had the ability to thrive at stopper.

"I was one of the only ones on the team who had experience and was pretty good at it," Wheeler said.

She was right.

Wheeler earned Times All-Citrus/Hernando recognition that year, then again last season. And because of her versatility, she occasionally plays on offense, which gives Towne options.

In Lecanto's 1-1 tie with Central on Monday, Wheeler switched to center-midfield with about two minutes left and the Panthers trailing by a goal.

Shortly thereafter, she started a play that led to teammate Dani Sowell's tying goal.

"My first game (with the varsity), I was so surprised at her," keeper Jill Burkhart said of Wheeler. "I had never seen her play. She gets to the ball and doesn't back off."