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Long first season for NCT teams is longest in the nets

Roaming all over his end of the field, Kyle Staton stops shot after shot that few goalkeepers would see, much less get a gloved hand on.

Though facing an undefeated opponent, the Nature Coast keeper arguably is one of the best players on the field. He definitely is the best on his team.

Yet by game's end, the scoreboard displays a sobering bottom line: Lecanto 7, Nature Coast 0.

There's only so much one player can do.

For the Sharks, the inaugural boys and girls seasons have been long and marked with few successful days. Anyone can tell from the steady stream of lopsided scores that Nature Coast teams are at a disadvantage.

Without seeing the squad play, one might infer that the shortcomings are in the nets. After all, seven- or eight-goal losses ultimately come down to one player, right?

Wrong. Wrong as a player dribbling the ball with his hands.

Staton and Mike Steck, the Sharks regulars, are seasoned keepers. Amber Collard, the last line of defense on the girls' team, is excellent for a rookie. She has to be.

"Because our team needs a lot of work, I haven't spent any time with Amber at all," coach Phil Bennett said. "What she's done this year is all her own natural ability.

"If you ever saw any of our games, you could see how much she saved us, really," Bennett said. "She's definitely saved us more goals than she conceded."

The girls squad, eliminated Wednesday by Pasco in the Class 3A, District 6 semifinals, finished 5-17 but won four of nine to end the season on a positive note. Collard picked up the position on a whim but turned into a such a good keeper, the Hernando Heat club team noticed and invited her to join.

"At the beginning, I really didn't know anything," said Collard, who looked for a sport after football season (she was among two girls on that squad) when the school principal suggested soccer and goalkeeping. "I learned the flow of the game and now can tell where the ball's going to go."

That is one plus about playing goal for a losing team _ the opportunities to learn are endless. Nearly every game, Collard knew she would face shot after shot.

That too was the challenge, knowing a barrage of shots would be coming but that inevitably a few would be unstoppable.

"One time I really got frustrated after a game, I threw my gloves down and said, "I'm done, I'm quitting,' " Collard said. "I felt like I was the last resort, that when the other team scored it was my fault."

As eight-goal, mercy-rule games pile up, a goalie could very well be improving but still have nothing to show for it. Sticking with it, as the ultracompetitive Collard did, becomes a psychological challenge.

"That does wear and tear on a keeper mentally over the course of a season, if not over the course of a week (of blowouts)," Springstead boys coach Sal Calabrese said. "You've got to be real positive (as a coach), you've got to keep filling his head that it's not his fault."

Calabrese gives high marks to Steck, a junior who played keeper for many of the Sharks' 17 regular-season losses. The team has yet to win but Steck was far from the problem. An inexperienced defense and lack of offensive power had to bear the blame.

Nature Coast boys coach Ron Lubosco said goalkeeping became frustrating for Steck, and the decision was made to use him more as a position player. Last week against Pasco, Steck received a red card and mandatory suspension, necessitating the use of Staton and other Sharks in goal.

Staton, as evidenced Thursday at Lecanto, is an outstanding keeper capable of anchoring a squad for years. But at Nature Coast, Lubosco has had to use him at midfield often in hopes of generating offense.

With Staton in net, the Sharks failed to get off a shot against Lecanto. But without him in goal, the game almost certainly would not have lasted the full 80 minutes.

Instead of an 8-0 mercy-rule walkoff, the Panthers had to play the entire game. And they did, putting 31 shots directly on net. Staton repelled 24 of them, many in highlight-reel fashion.

"I love to win, but I love getting shot on," said Staton, who came via Davie Western and is an experienced club player. "Sometimes when the other team has the ball, I kind of want them to take a rip so I can make a save."

An unusual attitude, but at Nature Coast an essential one. The shots will be coming.