Through nine seasons of boys soccer, Nature Coast hasn't exactly left opponents quaking in their boots before facing them.
Through their initial 165 varsity matches, the Sharks have posted a 33-121 won-lost slate, not counting their 11 draws. That works out to a 21.0 winning percentage – not exactly title material.
During that stretch, Nature Coast's program hasn't placed one championship trophy inside the California Street campus gymnasium. That drought, however, may soon end.
First and foremost, Nature Coast won't have to fret attempting to solve Hernando County's winningest-ever soccer (boys or girls) mentor – Sal Calabrese.
Calabrese's 18-year run concluded early this summer when he announced his retirement. Though he left the door open to return at some point (under the right terms), his dazzling 228-135-39 won-lost-tied lifetime mark should have him headed to the Florida Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Calabrese's teams absolutely dominated Nature Coast as he never lost to the Sharks, etching a 16-0-1 lifetime slate against them.
With Springstead graduating 12 seniors and not returning any of their 11 starters (10 graduated and the expected returning keeper Jordan Leathers recently suffered an ACL injury), the Eagles will surely be hard-pressed to earn their fourth straight county championship.
Enter Nature Coast. Under ex-Eagle standout, Ian Wald, the Sharks have slowly gotten better and better. The California Street club is coming off its best-ever season at 10-8-1.
Though Nature Coast graduated its career scoring leader, Eric MacLean (38 goals, 24 assists, 100 points), it's other All-County selection from last season returns, forward Frank Villaizan.
Villaizan needs 46 points in his senior year to surpass MacLean as the school's most prolific scorer.
Besides Villaizan, the Sharks return a county-best seven other starters and will host the Class 3A, District 6 Tournament at Shark Tank Stadium beginning Jan. 22.
"I'm most excited about returning most of our lineup," indicated Wald, who carries a school-record 22-37-5 career mark into his fourth season at the helm. "I think the weaknesses we had last year are no longer weaknesses."
On the loss of the school's all-time leading scorer and four-year starter MacLean, "If you would have asked me that question three months ago, I would have said it would take a small miracle (to replace him)," Wald said. "But when school started we got a new freshman (Morgan Vraspir) who is as good, or better, than MacLean. He has ability with his tremendous vision and footwork to fit right in."
Vraspir is expected to complement senior Cody Van Natter up top when Van Natter completes his run at a cross-country state title.
Van Natter was the team's third-leading scorer in 2011-12 behind MacLean and Villaizan.
The greatest concern continues to center around the team's goalkeeping. Nature Coast unsuccessfully utilized three different keepers last winter.
"The key for us is having the ability to maintain leads and close out games," pointed out Coach Wald.
Nature Coast will rest its fortunes on a first-year starter, junior David Bailey, between the pipes.
As far as the county ranks, "I think there are no clear-cut favorites," modestly indicated Coach Wald. "Springstead will still be good. But I don't see them duplicating their success. It'll be a bit of challenge. It has to be when you lose the greatest (soccer) coach this county has ever had."
On reaching a district final for the first time in eight seasons, "I haven't seen everybody so I'm not entirely sure who the favorite is," said Wald. "I think Leesburg lost a lot and Tavares and Eustis are always tough."
According to Wald, the Sharks will have a successful season, "If our goalkeeping is good. Last year we gave up a goal nearly 70 percent of the time when the shot was on frame. That's way too much. If we can cut that percentage in half, that's a few more wins."
In 2010-11, Central edged Springstead in overtime in the district finale, 2-1, to earn its second-ever championship trophy in 22 seasons.
But in Season 23, the Bears faced replacing 10 graduated starters from their district title club.
The end results weren't pretty and weren't unexpected. Central finished 5-12-0.
The Bears totaled 21 goals – their worst offensive output in two decades.
After suffering through 11 consecutive .500-or-less seasons, Central pieced together 11 straight winning campaigns – until last winter.
Central's lone All-County pick last season, defender Cameron McGeehan, and its best overall player, Gage Brooks (until he suffered a knee injury and failed to complete the season) – both graduated.
Third-year skipper Alex Viramontes is cautiously optimistic his club will improve behind its five returning starters.
With the loss of McGeehan and Brooks, the Bears highest returning scoring threat is sophomore Jans Tamayo (three goals, three assists).
"I like this team's mental makeup," declared Viramontes, who enters with a career 14-20-3 slate. "The guys understand what we went through last year. At this point, they want to stay away from repeating that effort. The way I see it, there's only one way to move up and that's through hard work."
The greatest Bear concern is the surplus of seniors (11) – many of whom have never started at the varsity level.
"We're top-heavy with seniors," noted Viramontes. "Which is not necessarily a bad thing, except many of our seniors haven't started before; playing JV isn't varsity."
Offensively, Viramontes believes the Bears have the ability to score behind freshman Vinnie Napolitano and senior Dawson Jones (two goals, two assists in 2011-12).
"Dawson is a good, strong athlete who just needs some touches," explained Viramontes. "And Vinnie is an energetic guy. He's hungry for goals. He gives us fresh blood up top."
Passing-wise, look for senior Zach Campbell and junior Nione Odulaja to dictate tempo.
As far as the county level, "It's really weird not seeing or talking to Sal (Calabrese) during soccer season," noted Viramontes. "Him not being there may work out for us. To me, Nature Coast has the most back; they look like the strongest team in the county."
As far as 3A-6, "Every year changes," stressed Viramontes. "I think Tavares has a bunch of young players back, so they could contend. As far as everyone else, we'll have to wait and see."
According to Viramontes, the Bears will have a successful season, "If we stay healthy and continue to work hard in practice; that's only way you can get better. As coaches we can only coach them up so much; the rest is in the kids' hands."
Two huge numbers loom large for the county's oldest soccer program at Hernando High.
The Bell Avenue program begins its 35th season under the shadow of 26 and 13.
It's been 26 long seasons – or since head coach Tizzy Schoelles' 1985-86 team went 13-11 – since the Purple and Gold have finished with a winning record.
During that stretch, the Leopards have utilized 13 coaches in hopes of repeating a winning season.
Fourth-year mentor Andy Suarez will have to replace 13 seniors – including two of his All-County picks from last winter: defender Josh Fleischer and his second-leading scorer, Cody Gillis (10 goals, six assists).
That's not counting replacing the Leopards' two-time All-County selection from 2009-10 and 2010-11, Andres Pinzon, who suffered an ACL injury prior to soccer season last winter.
Suarez has retained five starters from last year's 9-13-1 team featuring the return of his leading scorer of a year ago, senior Nick Hopkins. Hopkins paced the Leopards with 12 goals and six assists.
After carving out the team's most amount of wins since Ronald Reagan occupied the White House, can the Leopards end the county's longest-ever streak of losing seasons?
"We have 9-10 letterman back, that helps," indicated Suarez, who enters with a career 18-47 won-lost slate. "I like our intensity so far."
The greatest concern revolves around who'll compliment Hopkins up top.
"I'm hoping Hopkins steps his game up," said Suarez. "And I think Adam (Singer) will help us at left forward. The key, though, is our midfield. We definitely need (Brad) Platt and (Zacary) Ross to carry the load."
County-wise, "We're replacing our best defense in years with a lot of youth. And youth needs some time to jell," explained Suarez. "The team to beat in the county is Nature Coast."
In the 3A-6 picture, "To me, Nature Coast and Leesburg would be my picks to win the district. I think we'll be in the middle of the pack," forecasted Coach Suarez. "We're replacing a bunch of seniors with new guys. I believe in these kids, but they have to believe in themselves. I really don't think we have the numbers to compete for a district title."
In 2011-12, Weeki Wachee's first-year program suffered through growing pains finishing winless at 0-18-0.
Under first-year skipper Patrick McHugh, the young Hornets were outscored by 80 goals, 92-12.
In the process, Weeki Wachee was shutout nine times and scored more than one goal thrice.
This year's Hornet club will be guided by Shane Tarbox. Tarbox indicated that 40 players tried out for the team.
Tarbox's 18-man roster features nine seniors including the return of leading scorer Joey Manina (seven goals, one assist). Junior Andrew Jensen (four goals, five assists) will compliment Manina up top.
"Jensen is one of our main leaders. He sees the game really well from midfield," Tarbox said. "Manina can definitely put the ball in the back of the net."
Two others to look for include Central sophomore transfer Mike Tinari and senior Josh Almeida.
"Tinari brings a competitive nature to every match," noted Tarbox. "And Almeida is also a strong player who brings a physical presence."
Coach Tarbox doesn't see his team's overall youth as a deterrent.
"We've got a lot of young players – that's gives us room to grow," said Tarbox. "We've got a lot of good attitudes and the kids are excited to get away from the losing stigma."
Coach Tarbox points to his team's inexperience on defense as the greatest concern.
"We're actually pretty balanced offensively," said Tarbox. "Chris' (Rosser) athleticism will certainly help us in the back. And we're going to use a different formation to give us more protection on defense."
On his team's fresh approach, "It's a new season," pointed out Coach Tarbox. "What happened last year doesn't matter. I want the boys to enjoy the experience of winning. If we work through the adversity and continue to work hard, that'll happen."
Warren Schmidt certainly has huge shoes to fill.
Schmidt, 62, is a nurse with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. He's served in that capacity for seven years His new gig involves serving as Springstead's sixth soccer mentor in 33 seasons.
What kind of a situation does the former Randolph-Macon graduate inherit?
Springstead is coming off its county-high 22nd Hernando County championship and third district title (4A-4).
The Eagles open minus any starters from their final match in regional semifinals, including the loss of defending the Coach of the Year Calabrese, Player of the Year Matt Campbell (now at St. Leo University) and seven other All-County selections.
Actually, one All-County selection did return, the injured Leathers, and he may be done for the season.
Despite a bare cupboard, Coach Schmidt isn't making excuses.
"I'm a defensive guy," described Coach Schmidt. "I've coached competitive soccer over the past 10 years. After looking at what we have I think we have some strong offensive players and we need to improve on our speed on defense."
Coach Schmidt was encouraged by the return of junior Frankie Fontan (five goals, three assists) and freshman striker Tyler Wendol.
"Frank stole the show in our first preseason match against Zephyrhills," noted Schmidt. "Tyler has the ability to see the entire field and score or pass. He has tremendous ball skills and vision. He did some things that are very difficult to teach.
"I'm also excited about the opportunity of playing our new goalkeeper, Matt McDuff."
On his team's most glaring weakness, Coach Schmidt replied, "We're not the biggest team around. We lack some size.
"Right now, I'm OK with us being the hunted. I like coming to a program that everyone is shooting for. So far, the kids seem to be responding real well to what we're teaching."
In 2010-11, the county's tiniest program, Hernando Christian Academy, suffered through its worst-ever campaign finishing 0-15-0. The Lions were outscored, 84-3.
Last fall, HCA meandered through another winless season.
This year, Ohio's Jeremy Crawford's replaced Frank Zayas as head coach.
"There's some young talent here," pointed out Coach Crawford, who played soccer in high school and college. "There's enough here to help build a program. I don't plan on going anywhere."
On the season's prospects, "The kids want to move forward, so do I," said Coach Crawford. "We're so young, the kids' minds are like sponges – they soak up everything."
The downside of having so many fresh faces, "Is the youthfulness of the team," said Crawford. "It's my first year here. I need to learn the ins and outs of our guys. It'll be challenging, but that's what I enjoy."
On what Crawford would like to see by the conclusion of his independent schedule, "Our goal is build this team's confidence," he said. "I coach an English-style of soccer. More possession is involved. If we can incorporate what we do in practice into our matches then this will be a successful season."
The Lions don't open their season until Nov. 27 at home in Brooksville, against Citrus Park Christian.