Bartram Trail (16-3-4) will host Orlando Montverde Academy (19-1) in Class 4A girls soccer state semifinal. The Bears are 18-2-3 at home over the last two seasons.
Black bears are quick on their feet and instinctive. Those attributes make the animal a fitting nickname for Bartram Trail’s girls soccer team.
All season long the fleet-footed Bears have faced tactical tests in their goal-scoring quests and found a way to not be second-best.
Those challenges will be brought to the forefront in tonight’s Class 4A state semifinal against nationally ranked Orlando Montverde Academy (19-1). Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Bartram Trail.
“We’re all really, really excited, especially because we have such a nice stadium,” said Bartram Trail senior forward Allison Felts. “Since we got to host the district tournament there, it was really exciting. We were really excited to bring it home from Niceville.
“Last week, when we won the regional semifinal (against Creekside), I forgot it was going to be our last home game. … Coach (Jen) West told us, if we beat Niceville there was a possibility we would be able to bring it home, so that was a big motivation.”
Bartram Trail (16-3-4) has been irrepressible at home and will need that form against a school that attacks with abandon. Like so many bears in this state, Bartram is fiercely protective of its environment with an 18-2-3 mark at home over the last two seasons, including a 9-1-2 record this season with seven shutouts.
Bartram Trail has posted 13 shutouts this season. One more and the Bears will be on their way to the Class 4A state final against Estero (24-2-1) or Archbishop McCarthy (23-1-2) on Feb. 23 in DeLand.
Slowing down Montverde is easier said than done. The Eagles average 4.45 goals per game and have beaten two of the three schools to defeat the Bears this season.
Monteverde is appearing in its second straight state semifinal. Last year, Shalya Smart scored a pair of first-half goals, but the Eagles conceded three straight to lose 3-2 to eventual state champ West Palm Beach Oxbridge.
Meanwhile, Bartram is in the state semifinals for the first time since 2010. That team was laced with seniors including goal-scorer extraordinaire Sam Scalf. This year’s Bears have four seniors, three of whom — Maddie DeFranco (17 goals, 16 assists), defender Nicole Wynn and Jade Sparks (13 goals, 11 assists) — will play collegiately, but the core of the team will be back next year.
The last time a St. Johns County soccer team did not advance to the semifinals was back when Facebook was for college students, Barack Obama was an unknown state senator and Mia Hamm was scoring goals for the U.S. women’s national team. That was 2004.
That was also the first year Mike Pickett took a team to the state tournament. Pickett is the longtime coach at St. Johns Country Day in Orange Park. The Spartans (24-0-0) beat Montverde and Bartram 4-1 this season.
Pickett also coaches nine of the Bartram players at the club level, including goalkeeper Julie Arciprete (13 clean sheets), defenders Paige Hunt and Brielle Maloney, winger Tori Grambo (16 goals, 10 assists), holding midfielder Taylor Radecki (12 goals, 10 assists) and Victoria Stachowiak, who scored the opener in Tuesday’s Region 1-4A final win over Niceville.
Pickett said Bartram’s opponent is “the best possession team I’ve seen in the last 10 years. Their movement is unbelievable. They attack with eight players in every attack.”
The Eagles are led by Smart, a senior forward and Wake Forest commitment who has 14 goals and 11 assists. Smart is not the only one who can put the ball in the back of the net. Montverde has 14 girls with multiple goals this season, including freshman Briyah Drayton (15 goals, seven assists) and senior Selena Salas Alonso (11 goals, 14 assists).
As spectacular as those numbers are, Pickett said his team knocked off the Eagles because it took advantage of set pieces and converted its chances when counterattacking.
Felts knows the Bears will need to put the ball in the back of the net when given the chance.
“It’s going to be really important to finish the opportunities we are given,” she said. “When we have someone as strong as Taylor, we treat her throw-ins like corner kicks. It’s going to be really important for us to capitalize on those chances.”
In Radecki and Grambo, the Bears have the ability to do both. Radecki’s throw-ins are just one facet of her strength on set pieces. The Florida State commitment can also score from 35 yards. Meanwhile, Grambo has the speed, competitiveness and 1-on-1 ability to get behind the Montverde defense.
“You have to be really patient and very organized because you’ll have to push runners off,” Pickett said. “If your team is not great at organizing and communicating, you’re going to be in for a long night.”