Local Sports

Heart of a Dragon

A budding softball star in her younger days, Hannah Waller gravitated towards soccer just before she reached high school.

"I had played soccer with coach (John) Merlo when I was really little," Waller said. "But it wasn't until I got older and he encouraged me to try out that I really got back into it."

And after being selected as one of Lake Placid's captains, helping the Green Dragons to a district championship, and getting voted into the state's most prestigious all-star game, it appears that Waller picked the right sport.

"I really enjoy soccer, and I'm sad that it's coming to an end," she said. "It was so awesome to be a part of this team. My teammates really helped me be the player that I am."

A center midfielder for the Dragons, Waller netted four goals and dished 16 assists on the season. Her leadership was invaluable to the team, and she cemented her legacy at Lake Placid when she played the Class 2A-District 10 championship with the flu. Waller trudged on despite the game going into double-overtime.

"Hannah is just so exceptional, both as a player and a person," Merlo said. "She was always one of the hardest working players we had. Other coaches always told me she was the most difficult to plan for. And to get voted in as our area's Florida Athletic Coaches Association All-Star representative is just such a huge accomplishment. That game brings together some of the best players in Florida."

For her efforts and accomplishments, Waller has been selected as the Highlands Today 2014 All-Highlands Girls Soccer Player of the Year.

Waller said she was honored by the award, but quickly deflected the attention to her teammates.

"It's all about my team and what they did," she said. "I'm here because of them. It's all about team - trying to have fun, and listen to your coaches. Enjoying the game instead of focusing all on winning."

Waller said she doesn't have plans to play soccer in college, and instead wants to focus on her schooling. But she left the door open for coming back and volunteering as an assistant for Lake Placid when she could.

"I would love to help out the Dragons when I'm home from school. I was so fortunate to other players come back and help me, that I'd like to do the same for other girls."

The Team

Haylee Peters, junior, Sebring: The Blue Streaks MVP, Peters was an integral part of Sebring's offensive attack. In 19 games, she scored 22 goals and dished six assists.

"She was so vital to our success this season," Streaks coach Richie Birdsall said. "If Haylee hadn't gotten hurt before districts, there's a good chance we would've gone a lot farther in the postseason."

Rosa Ramirez, junior, Lake Placid: The Green Dragons defensive sweeper, Ramirez was one of three captains on Lake Placid's squad, and she always earned high-praise from the coaching staff - even if they were from the other team.

"Time and again, she was the player who always drew a compliment from the opposing coach," Dragons coach John Merlo said. "She was a great defender - one of the best I've ever coached. It's remarkable that she was able to score five goals this season while being such a solid defensive player."

Rebecca Hall, junior, Avon Park: One of the hardest working players the Red Devils had, Hall's resolve to improve her soccer ability left a positive impression on her coach.

"She was always willing to learn," Devils coach Chris Sboto said. "She was one of the best players to coach and I look forward to another year with her."

Marianna Becker, senior, Sebring: Birdsall never had much to worry about when Becker was on the field. One of the Streaks best defensive players, Becker broke up numerous scoring attempts by sliding in at the last second to deflect the ball.

"If I ever thought we were in trouble, I'd just yell her name," Birdsall said. "She did a great job backing up our defense and keeping teams off the scoreboard."

Stephanie Bennett, senior, Lake Placid: Last year's All Highlands Girls Soccer Player of the Year, Bennett was just as prolific as a right midfielder this season.

"Stephanie was another one of out team captains," Merlo said. "She scored six goals and had 19 assists, which set a school record and was good enough for second in all of Class 2A."

Sarah Becerra, sophomore, Avon Park: Becerra was another bright spot for the Devils this year. Only a sophomore, Sboto is looking for big things from her in the coming seasons.

"She's done so well despite being so young," he said. "I really think she's going to grow into a top-notch soccer player."

Shannon Bloemsma, junior, Sebring: One of the tog goalkeepers in Class 3A, Bloemsma was the Streaks anchor on defense. In 21 games, she had 145 saves and five shutouts.

"She was never scared and always played hard," Birdsall said. "We played a lot of tough competition during the year, and she was always up for the challenge."

Ann Ramirez, senior, Lake Placid: One of the senior leaders for the Dragons, Ramirez cemented a solid Lake Placid defense.

"She was a great defender for a first-year player," Merlo said. "She had an outstanding year."

Lashaday Love, junior, Avon Park: One of the Devils most talented players, Love earned the Sboto's respect for her tenacity on the soccer field.

"Lashaday always played hard," Sboto said. "She's one of those girls who never took a play off. I'm so happy to have her on my team."

Lacey Watson, sophomore, Sebring: Watson was a the equivalent of a utility player in baseball. Birdsall put Watson wherever he needed her, and she always excelled. While limited to three goals and six assists because of her primary role as a defender, Watson amassed 21 steals.

"She was by far the best all-around player for our team," Birdsall said. "Her lack of 'important' stats are deciving. She was easily one of our most valuable players."

Brittany Fraginals, junior, Lake Placid: Hampered by injuries throught the season, Fraginals still managed to earn a spot on the All-Highlands first team.

"She blossomed into a really exciting player," Merlo said. "She's got speed, she's aggressive, and she'll be a key player for next year for sure."

Alina San Miguel, senior, Sebring: An integral part of Sebring's defesnive schemes, San Miguel stonewalled most opponents.

"She's right there in the heart of our diamond defense," Birdsall said. "She doesn't allow many goals to get through. And even though she's back there on defense, she still managed to get a handful of goals to go along with 11 steals."

Mary Grace Bates, sophomore, Lake Placid: The best pure scorer the Dragons had, Bates was usually the catalyst in each game for Lake Placid.

"This young lady took a huge step this year," Merlo said. "She had another outstanding year at forward, scoring 17 goals and dishing two assists. She's well on her to breaking the school record for total goals. It'll be fun to see how much better she'll be next year."

?Sarah Smith, senior, Sebring: For a midfielder who didn't get many opportunities to attack, Smith still scored five goals, dished five assists, and logged four steals.

"She's got a really good defensive mindset," Birdsall said. "She always managed to help our offense through her defense."

Sonia Becerra, senior, Lake Placid: From bench-warmer to starter, Becerra proved that hard work pays off.

"She contributed a lot to the success of our team," Merlo said. "She went from being a non-starter to being a midfielder, and did a great job at it."

?Scheeley Grimes, freshman, Sebring: One of the most proficient freshman for the Streaks, Grimes netted three goals, dished two assists, and accumulated 21 steals.

"Scheeley had a great season for us," Birdsall said. "She's a talented center midfielder with a lot of potential."

Jenna Blount, senior, Lake Placid: Blount was the girl with the golden foot. She booted the winning penalty kick against McKeel Academy to give Lake Placid the Class 2A-District 10 Championship.

"Jenna played all over the field for us this year, and was a tremendous force in the middle," Merlo said. "She's got a very powerful leg and was great for us down the stretch."

Eden Taylor, junior, Lake Placid: A multifaceted player, Taylor has the neseccary ingredients to be a succesful soccer player.

"I'm very excited about this young lady," Merlo said. "We put Eden on the opposing team's best player and she always shuts them down. I see nothing but great things for her."

Claire LeBlanc, senior, Lake Placid: A threat at both sides of the field for Lake Placid, LeBlanc was lauded for her resolve.

"She's one of the hardest working players I've ever coached," Merlo said. "She has great hustle and will always fight for the ball."

Jasmine Molina, junior, Lake Placid: A defensive saltwort for the Dragons, Merlo praised Molina for her efforts that often go unnoticed on the stat sheet.

"She did a great job of controlling the defense," he said. "She's a powerful player who will play a key role for us next year."

Tamija Douglas, sophomore, Lake Placid: The No. 2 ranked goalkeeper in all of Class 2A, Douglas was at the heart of Lake Placid's defense. Douglas amassed 168 saves while allowing just 15 goals on the season. Her skills have earned her a reputation of being one of the best goalies in the county - for boys or girls.

"Tamija was voted team captain for our district and playoff run," Merlo said. "She totaled nine shutouts and is one of the most talented players that I've ever coached. She's got a bright future."

Honorable mention

Kierston Waldron, freshman, Sebring; Lori-Ann Love, sophomore, Avon Park; Jazmin Gomez, senior, Sebring; Kelby Mahoney, senior, Sebring; Sofia Ochoa, freshman, Avon Park

Coach of the Year

For guiding Lake Placid to the Class 2A-District 10 Championship, John Merlo has been selected as the Highlands Today 2014 All Highlands Girls Soccer Coach of the Year.