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Pirates lose a leader

Defense was supposed to be the Pirates' forte this season.

Seniors Matt Ryals, the team's sweeper, and left defender Paul Thomas were both returning Times honorable mention Citrus/Hernando picks with great ball skills. Last year they solidified the defense on the outside, helping the Pirates to the district title.

Coach Bobby Verlato expected the same leadership this season.

But in the last play of Monday's 6-0 shutout of Ocala West Port, Ryals was racing to the ball and with one kick broke his tibia, or shin. The captain of the defense and four-year varsity player is out for the season.

"It's my last year, but it hasn't really hit yet that I'm not going to be able to play," said Ryals, who was 5 when he started playing the sport.

"I'm still going to go to all the games and everything. As soon as I get back out there and watch them, then it's going to be pretty bad."

Ryals was scheduled to have surgery Wednesday at Seven Rivers Community Hospital. He said two screws were to be put on the broken area.

"I'll fully recover but soccer's pretty much done with," Ryals said.

For this season, Ryals had been moved from right defender to starting sweeper to replace first-team all-area pick Kyle Griffin, with Thomas back on the left.

Now, Thomas will take over at sweeper, usually the defensive captain.

"You need to think more, you need to communicate with your other people using the entire field now," Thomas said. "Now you're like the eyes and ears of the team in a sense. If you see a ball, you have to tell your outside defenders, "I've got it' or "You've got it.' It's totally mental, it totally switched the game on me."

Ryals said he thinks Thomas will do well in his old spot.

"I'm going to go there and help Paul and stuff along on defense, just going to help him out if he needs it," Ryals said. "(Defense) was supposed to be one of our stronger points but now I think we'll focus on our midfield to be strong."

Verlato told the team Tuesday that every player had to step up.

Other line-up changes were made, including right midfielder Michael Grybek playing the right defender, and right defender Kevin Griffin moving to the left side.

"It's a big loss, definitely big shoes to fill," Verlato said.

Although Ryals will not be on the field with the rest of the Pirates this season, the players look forward to seeing him on the sideline, even though Ryals has to trade his cleats for crutches.

"Him being there will be inspiration," Thomas said.

_ Kristen Leigh Porter can be reached at or 564-3628.