The transformation has been remarkable.
In seven seasons, the Marco Island Academy girls soccer program has gone from laughingstock to powerhouse. The Manta Rays didn’t win a game until their third year of existence but have steadily improved every year since.
“It’s really something special, seeing the evolution of the program,” Manta Rays coach Darrin Palumbo said. “We went from losing every game and giving up more than 100 goals to winning almost every game and scoring more than 100. Each year we’ve won more games and lost fewer games than the year before and each year we’ve scored more and given up less.”
Marco Island Academy (17-1) enters postseason play Tuesday with a legitimate shot at its first-ever district championship. They’ll be heavy favorites in Tuesday’s semifinal match against Monday’s play-in winner between Seacrest and St. John Neumann. If they get past that game, they’ll likely have a rematch against First Baptist Academy for the district championship. The Lions (11-3) handed the Manta Rays their only loss of the season, a 2-0 defeat Jan. 24.
“They’re an outstanding team and we respect them and they respect us,” Palumbo said. “We were a little banged up against them and I actually thought we played pretty well, all things considered. We know it’s going to be a tough game if we both get there.”
The Manta Rays won the Paradise Coast Athletic Conference championship with a 6-0 win over Mason Classical Academy on Thursday night. A day earlier, the boys also claimed the PCAC title with a 7-0 win over Donahue Academy.
In Thursday’s win, junior goalkeeper Kirra Polley recorded her 12th shutout of the season. She also scored a goal on a 60-yard blast that got past the Mason Classical keeper. Polley is a part-time field player for the Manta Rays, scoring 11 goals and dishing out nine assists when she’s in the field during blowout contests.
Polley and senior defender Jenna Palumbo – the coach’s daughter – have been leaders of a defense that has allowed just five goals all season. The Manta Rays have outscored opponents by an impressive tally of 105-5. The Manta Rays have beaten big public schools like Barron Collier, Lely and Golden Gate for the first time this season – showing Marco Island can play with anyone in the county.
“We may be one of the smallest teams but we’re definitely one of the strongest,” Polley said. “We definitely have more heart and more hustle than most teams have. We know most of the time we’re viewed as the underdogs, and that’s ok with us. Every year we’ve gone in trying to do better than the year before, and every year we’ve been able to do it.”
Marco Island features a well-balanced offense, with five players reaching double-digit goal totals. Ellie Ball leads the team with 27 goals, with Morgan Maile scoring 20 goals and dishing out a team-high 16 assists. Stephanie Carter (14 goals, 12 assists), Polley (11 goals, 9 assists) and Hailey Cartwright (10 goals, 7 assists) round out the team’s top five scorers. The Manta Rays recently lost a key cog when senior captain Savannah Heimerl (4 goals, 6 assists) suffered a season-ending injury, but got a lift Thursday when Cartwright returned after missing a month to an injury of her own.
“Losing Savannah hurts us because she’s such a big part of everything we do, a real leader on the team, so we’ve had to adjust a bit,” Palumbo said. “But we had thought we lost Hailey for the season, so getting her back is a big plus going forward.”
Polley said the team’s camaraderie is what has made the Manta Rays so successful in recent years.
“We’re a family and we really take that seriously here,” she said. “If anyone’s having a bad day, we all do what we can to help pick them up. It’s more than just a team and if you’re new to the school or new to the team, you fit right into our family, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.”
Palumbo agreed, adding players who have graduated in recent years remain plugged in to what’s going on with the team.
“The players who came before are who helped make this program what it is,” Palumbo said. “They were there for some of those tough early years when we were getting mercy-ruled every other game, but they also were there when we started to turn things around. Every player that’s ever come through here has been a key part of our success.”