One year removed from the first regional tournament berth in eight years and with 15 returners slated to take the pitch, the Midlothian Lady Panthers are primed for another breakout and record-breaking soccer season.
The Lady Panthers fell to Highland Park, 3-1, in the 5A Region II semifinals last April and finished the season with a 16-5-8 overall record after a 9-1-4 run through District 10-5A.
They have since trained with their respective clubs and with each other, held a Christmas party and written several encouraging letters to teammates in hopes of continuing to build on a foundation of youth and lofty expectations.
So, naturally, there has to be a ton of pressure on this year’s team, right?
“A little,” said sophomore Kaleigh Nazier, who led the Lady Panthers with 29 goals scored last season. “But it really isn’t that much pressure. I am excited for the season.”
Midlothian senior Mckenzie Maner added that she thought the Lady Panthers “kind of surpassed” their own expectations last season and noted, “this year we should be even better because we are coming back with basically the same team as last year.”
“We really got along well last year and had a lot of team unity, which was something I had not had during my younger years in high school,” Maner added. “We really enjoy being around each other and really enjoy playing together. I think that us coming back with the same group of girls is beneficial to us. We know each other well and maybe better than some other teams do. I think we have a lot of girls who work good together.”
Nazier and Maner join 13 other Lady Panthers who return with a plethora of varsity experience ahead of the 2018-19 season. It’s a list that includes five of the top six goal scorers from one season ago, led by Naizer (29) and junior Tori Sorrels (16).
Alyssa Young (8), Maner (6) and Sydnee Garner (4) round out that lineup.
Maner also tied alumna Stephanie Martinez for the team lead in assists (9) last season, while Sorrels and Garner both recorded eight assists. Naizer and Baylee Frederick also each assisted on seven goals.
“Our biggest goal is to make it to state, and we definitely want to get past the regional tournament and get past where we did last year,” Maner said. “We do a lot of leadership activities to unite our team closer and get stronger and, just, hopefully, make it to state.”
She added, “We are going to come back stronger this year.”
Head coach Brent Stapleton echoed Maner’s assessment of the current squad and said the experiences gained by advancing to the regional tournament would be “invaluable” this season.
“It is important that they continue to grow as players,” Stapleton continued. “We have talked with them throughout the duration of our offseason about what they need to improve on so that we continue to expand because we do not want to be a one-dimensional team.”
But it isn’t just the goal scorers who return for the Lady Panthers this season. They also bring back junior goalkeeper Zoe Bolt, who recorded four consecutive shutouts down the stretch, including three in the postseason, before allowing the three goals against Highland Park.
Bolt also turned in 10 clean sheets over the final 14 matches of the season.
“She was amazing for us during that stretch run last year,” Stapleton said. “She was amazing. We are very happy to have her back.
“[…] That is a credit to her and our defenders as well and how organized they are. We have some really good players who all really play well together and we look forward to continuing that this year. Zoe was a budding young goalkeeping star in the playoffs last year and we are excited for this year.”