It’s a rarity when the two top-ranked high school soccer teams in America come from the same region of a state.
But when they’re only minutes apart?
That’s the story for Fleming Island’s defending state champion boys soccer team and the high-flying girls of St. Johns Country Day, each of which has spent most of the past month ranked No. 1 in national polls by USA Today and the United Soccer Coaches.
The schools are separated by Doctors Lake and the span of roughly four miles as the Golden Eagle flies.
But from the heart of Clay County, they’re both making a national impact.
St. Johns Country Day has topped the girls poll wire-to-wire. Fleming Island led the boys rankings until the latest vote Wednesday, which moved Brophy (Ariz.) into the top spot.
So why is the county, long a soccer hotbed, now leading the way nationwide?
Fleming Island boys coach Michael Green doesn’t know for sure but he has some ideas.
“We’ve always had decent teams, and the players are able to play together for a long time,” Green said. “A group like this senior class only comes around once every four, five, six years, where you have so many guys that are very good players that have played together and are very comfortable.”
LED BY MR. SOCCER
After eight, nine or ten years playing together, Fleming Island’s boys are more than comfortable.
Ask senior striker Reed Davis which teammates he’s played alongside for that long, and he rattles off a list that goes on and on - Zach Robbins, Noah Hamlett, Brad McMahon, Lucas Hauth, Omar Zermeno…
“We’ve just been playing with each other forever, so we just know where everyone’s going to be before it happens,” said Davis, committed to Jacksonville University. “The chemistry’s been there all year.”
That makes the adjustment a little easier for first-year head coach Green, who had served as assistant for a decade under longtime Fleming Island coach Frank Pontore and played on three of Pontore’s state final four teams at Orange Park High School.
There’s the knowledge that Pontore still works with the program on the operations side - Green describes him as “our Tom Coughlin.” And there’s the comfort level from having a senior-laden squad hungry for one last title.
Davis, the state’s Mr. Soccer last year with 50 goals, has already left that mark in the rear-view mirror. He’s blasted 51 shots into opponents’ nets this season, including 11 games with a hat trick or more.
Hauth, a Davidson commit with 34 goals of his own, said the two really started to perfect their teamwork after their freshman year.
“We have kind of this brotherhood and this chemistry that not a lot of people can handle intensity-wise,” Hauth said.
With a forward partnership like that, it’s no wonder the Golden Eagles (17-0-2) haven’t lost a game since Jan. 13, 2017 at Tallahassee Leon.
“It’s so difficult to mark both of them,” said McMahon, the team’s central stopper. “Most teams from last year were focusing on Reed because they know all the goals he scored. Then that leaves space for Lucas.”
Even after the midseason loss of assist leader Marcus Murphy, who enrolled early at the University of South Florida, Green said that players like Dylan Bartel and Garrett Godfrey have helped pick up the slack in midfield.
A turning point for the season came on Nov. 27, a wild 4-4 tie with Bolles that helped show the Golden Eagles the need to adjust the balance between attack and defense.
“We used to be all very attacking, just going forward,” McMahon said. “But we realized that we’re going to get goals either way. We really needed to focus on defense, and once we figured that out, we just needed to fine-tune it.”
Their biggest test so far comes Friday against Fletcher, the reigning Gateway Conference champion that has stormed through its season undefeated to date. Those two may be on a collision course to meet again in the Region 1-4A semifinal in two weeks.
The next target for the Golden Eagles: repeating as state champion in Class 4A next month, something that only one Northeast Florida boys program, Nease in 2006 and 2007, has ever accomplished.
“It’s been a pretty good motivator,” goalkeeper Zermeno said. “It was a great feeling when we first got there.”
COUNTRY DAY DYNASTY
Alisa Detlefsen struggles to contemplate a time when she won’t be lining up alongside Payton Crews and Abbey Newton on the field for St. Johns Country Day.
“It hasn’t hit me yet that these are our last six games coming up,” the Spartans’ senior defender said. “It feels like we have another whole season.”
And 20th-year coach Mike Pickett already knows what’s going to flash through his mind once the season’s final whistle blows.
“Emotional. Really emotional,” he said. “I’ve had them since they were in fourth grade, been around them forever. They’re like daughters to me. I think my mind has blocked it out that it’s about to be over.”
But in one month, that time is coming.
Starting with their sixth-grade debuts, the Spartans’ senior trio has won Class 1A state championships in six straight seasons. They finished last year as USA Today’s top-ranked team, and they’re favorites to repeat.
A seventh straight state title would tie the Florida record of St. Thomas Aquinas from 1993 to 1999, and it would earn Crews, Detlefsen and Newton a place of their own in state soccer history.
The Florida High School Athletic Association doesn’t have records of any individual players earning consecutive championships in a team sport every year from sixth grade to senior year.
“Since fourth grade, these kids have played club together, played high school together and they’ve trained together,” Pickett said. “So their training group is this group, and they’ve literally been together 12 months out of the year their whole life.”
“I don’t think we appreciate it now as much as we will when we’re older,” Crews said.
This year’s Spartans (20-0-0) have tallied 65 consecutive wins, 77 consecutive games without a defeat and an unbeaten run of 1,116 days since their last loss to Creekside on Jan. 6, 2015.
Newton and Crews have both topped the 100-goal mark for their Spartans careers. Detlefsen, who has played virtually every position on the field, has scored 65 goals to go with 113 assists.
“Their soccer IQ together is just fun to watch,” Pickett said. “I’m going to miss that.”
They form the core of a squad that has rolled over everything in its path, but it’s more than just a three-player show.
Fellow senior Kirsten Pavlisko chases down trouble in defense, Kamy Loustau heads the front-line attack, Kamryn Towers has scored 12 times as a super-sub and Paige Crews, Payton’s younger sister, continues to emerge as a holding midfielder.
“Winning the state championship is important, but the most important is making sure that these girls next year are able to keep up the legacy,” Payton Crews said.
“I told the rest of the group they’ve done their job,” Pickett said. “They’ve carried the torch, and now it’s time to hand it off.”
The Spartans’ veterans are bound for major universities - Crews is going to TCU, Detlefsen to Troy, Newton to LSU. Their coach said they’re more than ready for the test.
“Now, they’ve got to go spread their wings,” Pickett said. “They’re all going to be fantastic in college.”
But the days are counting down. A district final against St. Joseph, then — they hope — three rounds of regionals and a semifinal before the Class 1A title game on Feb. 21 at Spec Martin Stadium in DeLand.
“I think if we do [win a seventh straight title], it’ll be so cool to look back,” Newton said. “I think that we haven’t fully processed it, even when we just got six.”