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Moment by moment brings Academy of Holy Names' soccer success

Academy of the Holy Names’ Julia Lester heads in a corner kick for the first goal during the Dec. 1 match against Land O’Lakes in Tampa. AHN won 3-0, continuing an undefeated season.
Academy of the Holy Names’ Julia Lester heads in a corner kick for the first goal during the Dec. 1 match against Land O’Lakes in Tampa. AHN won 3-0, continuing an undefeated season.
Published Dec. 9, 2015

TAMPA — One game at a time.

It is, perhaps, the most overused of overused sports cliches.

Coaches preach it to try to keep their teams focused. Players use it in interviews because they hear it regurgitated all the time. But in the case of the Academy of the Holy Names soccer team?

It's proven more spot-on than a tap-in empty netter.

"Coach (Kareem Escayg) tells us nonstop," senior Julia Lester said. "Day by day, game by game."

Case in point: last week's match against Land O'Lakes. The Jaguars and Gators entered unbeaten, with Land O'Lakes returning a good chunk of its 2014 state final team. But a matchup that should have proven a measuring stick for the Jaguars quickly turned into a thumping. AHN dominated from the outset, controlling the pace of play and walking away with a convincing 3-0 victory.

Cause for celebration? Hardly.

"We're very focused," said Lester, a University of Florida commit. "And by keeping it in a game by game mentality, we can't get too full of ourselves."

There was no jumping around. No whooping it up. No visible celebration other than a couple pedestrian high-fives.

"Right now, it was just another game in the books, another moment in time," Escayg said after the match. "Then, we will move on to the next game."

And if the message may appear vanilla, it's because last season taught the Jaguars a difficult lesson. AHN went 16-3 in 2013 on its way to a tough overtime loss to Tampa Prep in the region semifinals. But with the majority of the Jags returning for 2014, the future appeared bright.

Then, they finished 6-12-1, bowing out in the district quarterfinals again to the Terrapins.

So, this year, AHN fully embraced Escayg's philosophy, and the results have been impressive. The Jags came into this week undefeated at 10-0 and a perfect 4-0 in Class 2A-9. Barring something unexpected, AHN should enter the district tournament as the top seed and the favorite to win the championship, something never done in school history.

"In past years, we won two games in a row and then we'd get too far ahead and not in the moment," said junior Hannah Menendez, who has committed to North Florida. "We're not doing that anymore. We can't skip ahead and not be in the right mind-set."

Lester and Menendez, as has been the case the past couple years, have been the offensive leaders. Both have scored in double digits the past two seasons and had notched 15 and 11 goals, respectively, entering this week. Sophomore Claire Obeck has added nine strikes.

"Yes, we've won so many games this year, but we don't think we're hot shots or the team to beat," Lester said. "We're very humble, and we give our heart and soul out there on the field."

But both players agreed the Jaguars work best from back to front. AHN keeper Kendall Catone has surrendered just four goals through 10 matches, including seven clean sheets. Ellie Abdoney and Julia Petrillo have been sturdy as the center backs while flanks of Sophia Tremonti and USF commit Jessica Villa have the necessary speed to handle top-end strikers. Land O'Lakes, which came in against the Jaguars with 68 goals in 12 matches, found little room to operate in its attacking third.

"All four of our backs have club-level experience," Menendez said. "With them, we have the confidence up top to push up."

So, for the rest of the season, AHN will take it practice by practice, match by match, moment by moment. But when pressed about the playoffs and a potential state title, Menendez couldn't resist.

"We are so much more motivated this year," Menendez said. "I believe if we keep this up, we'll be where we want to be at the end."