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In three years, the Marco Island Academy girls soccer squad has gone from winless to district championship contender.

The rapidly improving program established a school record with its ninth win of the season Thursday, a 3-2 triumph over First Baptist Academy. That toppled last year’s 8-7-1 mark in which the Manta Rays posted their first-ever winning season and hosted a district playoff game for the first time. The Manta Rays added to the record with an 8-0 win over Seacrest Country Day on Friday afternoon.

Marco Island (10-4-1) isn't content with simply breaking the school record for wins. The Manta Rays believe they're capable of much bigger things.

“I feel we’ve improved every single week this season,” coach Jim Watt said. “I think we’ve got a very good chance of getting out of our district. The girls are playing so well as a team, moreso than in any other year.”

To reach the regional playoffs, the Manta Rays need to finish at least second in the Class 1A-District 8 standings. On the surface, that might seem like a tall order, given the top two seeds Canterbury and Evangelical Christian have gone a combined 29-1 in district play. All four of Marco Island’s losses have come to those two teams, but two of them were by a single goal.

“The first game we played against Evangelical Christian, we lost 6-0, but we were without three starters, including our starting goalkeeper (Kirra Polley),” coach Watt said. “But the next time we played them, we lost 3-2, and I don’t even think we played our best that day.”

The Manta Rays are led by the five seniors on its roster – Olivia Watt, Julia Wagner, Elizabeth Schultheis, Danya Zarate and Kayla Kladis.

“When we were freshmen, the number of girls who had actually played organized soccer, you could count on one hand,” Olivia Watt said. “Every year, we’ve had a couple more girls join from middle school, and we’ve been able to slowly train the girls that hadn’t played before each year. We’ve gone from a team that didn’t have much experience to one that works together really well. We’ve become a family on and off the field.”

Jim Watt says the program is set up for future success and that this year could be the tip of the iceberg for what’s to come.

“We’re building a program, you can see that,” Jim Watt said. “Each year, the girls get better and better. As the program grows and mature, you’re going to see a tremendous amount of success down the line. It won’t just be this year.”

Olivia Watt says it’s been a humbling experience to be part of a program that’s come so far in a relatively short period of time.

“We went from not winning a game and getting mercy ruled all the time to now putting the mercy rule on those same teams that used to do it to us,” she said. “Things have come full circle for us, but we’ve put in a lot of hard work to get here.”

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