Four years ago, Teagan Havemeier joined a Marco Island Academy girls soccer program that had never won a game.
Fast forward to her senior season, and the Manta Rays are now league champions and vying for a district crown.
“We were a humbled team back then,” Havemeier recalled. “I remember our first game that year, we tied Golden Gate. And for the upperclassmen on the team, that was such a big deal. We won three games that year, and they were the most exciting games in school history up to that point.”
Since going 3-12-2 in Havemeier’s freshman year, the Manta Rays have improved every season. Marco Island went 8-8-1 the next season before breaking through with the first winning season in school history last year at 13-5-1. The Manta Rays enter Monday’s first-round playoff game against St. John Neumann with a 13-3-2 mark. A win Monday will establish a school record for victories in a season and continue the trend of improving every year since those first wins four years ago.
The Manta Rays won the inaugural Paradise Coast Athletic Conference championship with a 4-0 win over Donohue Catholic on Monday night. Marco Island didn’t allow a goal in any conference game this year.
“That championship was for our seniors and for the alumni, the girls who put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears in getting this program off the ground,” first-year coach Darrin Palumbo said. “This group is really more of a family than a team, and that goes for the girls who have already graduated who remain in our team group chat. There’s a bond you get at a small school that might not happen in other schools. The girls had chips on their shoulders from being beat up for so long. It’s nice to see the program evolve to where we feel we’ve got a legitimate chance to win a district title.”
Palumbo, who joined the team as an assistant two years ago when his daughter Jenna was a freshman, recalls a game that year which showed him how far the program had come in a short period of time.
The Manta Rays scored a 2-1 win over Community School, bringing tears to the eyes of then-senior captain Julia Cartwright.
“She had played on the first-ever Marco Island team that got beat 22-0 by Community School in just one half of play,” he said. “And then four years later, here they are beating them. It’s been quite a turnaround for these girls.”
Havemeier said those early losses helped mold the team into what it is today.
“Obviously, winning is a great experience but I think you learn a lot more from the losses,” she said. “I’ve seen this team grow so much from when I was a freshman. We’re now mercy-ruling teams that used to mercy-rule us.”
As special as this season has been, the Manta Rays could be even better next year. Havemeier and Anna Chamberlin are the only seniors on the roster.
“We’re still a pretty young team,” Havemeier said. “Next year, I think the girls will be even better. It’s going to be exciting to see the program continue to grow.”
The Manta Rays have been dominant at times this season, outscoring opponents 96-13. Two of the three losses were by one goal. Junior striker Ellie Ball leads the team with 23 goals, with sophomore midfielder Hailey Cartwright adding 19 goals and a team-leading 13 assists. Sophomore forward Morgan Maile is third on the team with 12 goals, also dishing out six assists. Freshman Nicole Rodriguez has also delivered a strong year, scoring nine goals and distributing 12 assists. Other strong contributors include junior Savannah Heimerl (8 goals, 9 assists), freshman Sammi Reeves (6 goals, 5 assists), sophomore Kirra Polley (6 goals, 3 assists), junior Jenna Palumbo (5 goals, 7 assists) and Havemeier (5 goals, 7 assists). Polley is also the team’s starting goaltender, allowing just 12 goals in 18 games.
“This is a true team,” Palumbo said. “We try not to focus on who’s the top goal scorer, because so many of our girls are capable of scoring. The girls have really bought into the team concept.”