Eagles deal with pressure, keep winning

Updated: February 1, 2010, 10:25 PM ET
By Nicholas Murray | Special to ESPN RISE

LAKELAND, Fla. -- It's one thing to become one of the pre-eminent girls' soccer programs in the state of Florida.

Staying there once you've reached that point? It's an entirely different story. For the players at ESPN RISE Fab 50 No.3 George Jenkins (Lakeland, Fla.), learning to deal with the pressure of expectation, from within and outside the program, has been a new challenge.

But as George Jenkins enters its Class 5A, Region 2 semifinal contest against Winter Haven on Tuesday, coach Joe Lenard thinks the mental challenge has been met by his team.

"I think they've come very far," Lenard said. "In the beginning of the season, because of their success, they did feel a lot of pressure. They felt pressure in the beginning to get back to (the state final four in) Tampa, that they'd been there the past two years and some of those players, when they lost in the final last year was the first time they lost in high school. It was a lot of pressure in the beginning, and we found a way to take some of the pressure off the players. They've been enjoying themselves a lot more, they've been playing a lot better, and it's been very exciting to watch."

The Eagles certainly seemed relaxed at practice the day after cruising to an 8-0 victory against Osceola (Kissimmee, Fla.) in the region quarterfinals. While having lost All-American Kayla Bala, now at the University of Florida, and other seniors Ashley Yamnitz, Brittany Trawick and Tessa Syvertsen, the side appears to have more balance this year. Without having Bala's brilliance to fall back on, younger players have stepped into prominent roles on the team.

Sophomores Tori Abnathy and Kacy Scarpa have been at the forefront of that development. A starter as a freshman last season, Abnathy said all of the talk about rankings and expectations was one that weighed heavily on the team initially, but as the season has gone on it has subsided as the players have focused on enjoying themselves without having any fear of the consequences of a defeat.

"It's difficult to play well when you have all that pressure on you," Abnathy said. "I think we just realized that if we lose, it's not the end of the world. We know how good we are, and we know how good we can be, so we just decided we don't need to worry about what other people think, and we'll prove ourselves right."

Finding the balance between managing the expectations the side has of itself, keeping the game fun and maintaining an edge on the field has been crucial. With a pre-game routine that begins with the players in the locker room listening to anything from hip-hop to country to Disney songs to the pre-game warm-up where talk of anything but soccer subsides, the Eagles appear to have found that balance. As a result, the game has become fun again.

"People say there are pressures from people (asking) are they going to be another undefeated team, are they going to be ranked in the state or the country, are they going to make it back to the state finals, but really we just want to play," Scarpa said. "We love the game, and that's just an extra bonus to go along with it."

With that attitude, and the players they have in their line-up, it could make the Eagles a hard team to beat.

"At the end of the day this game has to be fun, and if they're not enjoying themselves, they're not going to play well," Lenard said. "You put too much pressure on yourself, you lose confidence and then the game's not fun anymore, and it's difficult to play, it's difficult to coach and it's not the best soccer to watch. When they go out there and just play and be themselves, and express themselves with the freedom that the game gives you, it's great to watch."