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In each of her first three seasons at the helm, Lely girls soccer coach Jen Santiago has been focused on getting her team to believe it can compete with anyone it takes the field against.

It’s taken some time, but the Trojans are starting to believe in themselves the way their coach does.

Lely advanced to the regional playoffs for the first time in more than a decade last year, outlasting Naples in the district semifinals before battling a tough Barron Collier squad in a 1-0 loss in the final. The Trojans then lost to Cape Coral-Mariner 2-0 in the regional quarterfinals, but the message was sent – the Trojans were no longer an easy out for anyone in the area.

The next step in the program’s development is to show that last year wasn’t a one-time only deal. Lely went 7-10-2 last year but displayed immense potential late in the year. The Trojans look to post a winning record this year and again advance to the regional round of the playoffs.

“I think we’re looking pretty good so far,” Santiago said. “At the beginning of the year, I challenged the girls that this would be the year we’d be pick up where we left off or fade back into where we were the years prior. So far, I’d say we’ve started with a bang.”

The Trojans topped Palmetto Ridge 4-1 in the season opener, but they were even more impressive in a losing effort against Class 4A state finalist Estero. The Trojans gave up three goals in the first five minutes of the contest against the Wildcats, seemingly destined for a blowout loss. But Lely hung tough, scoring three second-half goals in an eventual 4-3 defeat.

“Holding a team like that to one goal over the last 75 minutes is a great accomplishment, especially with the way the game started for us,” Santiago said. “It’s definitely a game they can build from. If we can come back against a team like that, we can do it against anyone.”

The Trojans surely have shown plenty of scoring firepower in the early going. Last year’s leading scorer Alondra Castillo has teamed with sophomore Kristen Petronzio to give the team a nice 1-2 punch up front. Those two have combined to score seven of the team’s nine goals in the first three games of the season, helping the Trojans start the year 1-1-1.

Other players to watch this year include junior midfielder JoJo Heinen, a German exchange student who played for Lely last year and decided to stay in the United States another year. Junior Saiorse Bowe leads the defense and is perhaps the Trojans’ most skilled player overall. Sophomore goalkeeper Laura Velasquez is a first-time starter who is expected to keep improving as the year goes on.

“These girls are becoming more like a family,” Santiago said. “It’s a very close-knit group. We’d like to think of ourselves as no longer being the team chasing everyone else. We’re confident we can compete with anyone on our schedule, and I’m not sure that was always the case before.”

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