The United States’ great women’s soccer team suffered an early knockout in the World Cup. Our national team was upset, and I was very upset.
But believe me when I tell you — with a family bias — that among the greatest sports upsets of my lifetime, none ranks with a historic 1992 victory by a public high school girls soccer team in St. Petersburg.
No one imagined that the Lady Spartans of Lakewood High School had a chance in the state semifinals. How could these neighborhood girls travel all the way to Fort Lauderdale on a yellow school bus and defeat the sports juggernaut, St. Thomas Aquinas? Aquinas not only had homefield advantage, but they had a run of four trips to the state finals. In years to come they would be declared national champs seven times.
As a private school, Aquinas attracts elite athletes in its region. Lakewood, the public school, was limited to kids from the neighborhood. Aquinas had more experienced coaches, better facilities, richer parents, nicer uniforms. When the Lakewood girls emerged onto the pitch in their old black uniforms, they looked like nuns on steroids.
But they won, 2-1!
The next day they would beat Rockledge, 1-0. It was the first state title won by any girls soccer team from West Florida.
The St. Petersburg Times selected Lakewood as outstanding amateur team in all sports. Eighteen years later, the players were elected into the Lakewood High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
Girls from the neighborhood
I’ve interviewed six of the members of that team — the sophomore class — women now in midlife. I’ve known them since they were little kids playing with my daughter on a rec team called the Fawns. That was 40 years ago.
I volunteered as an assistant coach, but knew little about soccer. Over time, they coached me, growing in their skills and athleticism. By the time they were 10, their prowess was being noted in local newspapers.
All six are now successful professionals. All have married names, but I will refer to them by their Lakewood names. They were Sara Kesler, Angela Brames, Tara Pickhardt, Carrie Nicks, Julie Schramek and Emily Clark.
They had a lot in common. All were born in 1976, bicentennial babies. All six lived within walking distance of each other in a middle-class neighborhood called Greater Pinellas Point. When they arrived as freshmen at Lakewood, they had an immediate impact on a soccer team that was gaining success under the direction of coach Bill Carter.
By the start of the 1991-92 season, with the support of starting upperclassmen such as Kristin Dobbs and Courtney Silva, the six sophomores became the backbone of the team. Coach Carter started Kesler as goalie. In front of her was a wall of defenders formed by Brames, Pickhardt and Nicks. Clark enjoyed her move from to center midfielder where she could dish out assists and lead the team in rough stuff. Up front ran the diminutive Schramek, a player with explosive speed.
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The game against St. Thomas Aquinas took place on a Friday evening, Feb. 21, 1992, at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. Coach Carter had advised his team that they were underdogs and would have to fight like the devil.
What a shock when Lakewood scored early — twice. Four minutes into the game, Clark floated a corner kick into the box. Dobbs and Chris Vieira converged, the ball glancing off both and inching over the goal line for the first score.
Moments later, a long pass from Brames sliced through the defense where the lightning quick Schramek converted it into a breakaway goal. It was clear that mighty St. Thomas Aquinas had underestimated the little public school that could.
The next hour turned into an onslaught from Aquinas, shot after shot after shot. One of those shots went in. Kesler saved the rest. Her quote in the Miami Herald the next day was priceless: “I felt like I was in one of those shooting galleries. I felt like I was one of those ducks.”
In the end, Lakewood took five shots and scored twice. Aquinas had 30 shots and scored just once.
To achieve such an upset, Lakewood needed both pluck and luck. When an Aquinas forward sneaked behind Kesler for an open shot, she was tackled by a sliding Nicks. On the video, it looks like she comes out of nowhere. That was the pluck.
The luck arrived when an Aquinas player was awarded a penalty kick that would have tied the score. A hard shot smacked off the left goal post, ricocheted off the right goal post and rolled right to Kesler.
No one could believe it
The headline in the Herald the next day read: “St. Thomas dominates, loses.” Lakewood was angry at the coverage, and at the remarks of the Aquinas coach, who emphasized his team’s dominance, rather than the underdogs’ effort.
Charged up by what they considered disrespect, and inspired by the tremendous show of support from family, friends, and the boys soccer team, Lakewood outplayed and outshot Rockledge in the final. Dobbs scored the only goal on a penalty kick. Kesler posted another shutout. 1-0. State champs, baby!
When the team bus rolled up to Lakewood High School that evening, they were escorted across the street to the social hall of Blessed Trinity Catholic Church. There to greet them was a gathering of adults from Southside Soccer Club. The girls danced with parents and climbed onto a stage for a karaoke rendition of a song by Kool and the Gang: “Celebration.”
The six sophomores, then 16, are now all 47. They are all married. Six women produced a total of seven children, all of them sons. The boys are active in sports (soccer, football, golf, hockey, wrestling), and all know they were raised by athletic moms.
I asked each of them about the fun they had together, about their memories of that great upset, and how those early experiences had shaped them as women.
Tara Pickhardt joked that she wore so much hairspray that she could head the ball without a single strand falling out of place. Co-owner of a successful real estate business, she said: “I want to sell every house. That stems from the competitive drive I learned from soccer.”
Carrie Nicks built a long career as a copy writer for Home Shopping Network. Four ACL knee surgeries offer proof of her dedication to the sport. “Sports kept me busy and out of trouble,” she remembers.
After her championship season, Emily Clark began to lose interest in soccer. She wanted to go to work, lying about her age to get a job with a dry cleaner. She sold beer from a cart to local golfers, who tipped her well. After college, she has built a career at AAA in human resources and corporate risk. “From soccer I learned diligence,” she said, “not giving up.”
Julie Schramek has worked at a bank for 24 years, now as an expert in wealth management and investing. “I was very competitive. I wanted to do good. I learned from soccer to be very organized. Life is organized.”
I once ran into Julie in a coffee shop, where she sat with three young men, her co-workers. “Gentlemen,” I said, “I hope you realize that you are sitting in the presence of one of the most exciting soccer players ever.” Julie pointed at them. “See!” she said, “I told ya!”
Sara Kesler, the consensus MVP of that state tournament, played one year at Furman University. She transferred to USF and would earn a doctorate in neuropsychology. “The ’90s were the grunge years,” she said, “All nihilism, and life is horrible.” Sports taught her positive values such as perseverance and dedication.
Soccer was a launching pad for Angela Brames, who played four years at Clemson. In her senior year, she was the outstanding female student-athlete in all sports. She now lives in Michigan and serves as athletic director of Saginaw Valley State University. “What I learned the most,” she remembers from that game, her voice filled with emotion, “Is that you can find a way. We are going to find a way with intelligence, grit and hard work.”
There were once 75 soccer trophies stacked up in a back room at the Clark house. Now there is only one, from Emily’s first championship with the under-8 Fawns. Hidden in the back of my closet for all this time was a black soccer jersey and the number 21 on the back. Emily wore it the year of that championship run.
Not long ago, she tried it on. It still fits.
Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.