Bill Unzicker wasn’t coaching high school at the time, but he was still paying attention to what was happening in East Manatee County. After a successful run as Saint Stephen’s girls soccer coach, Unzicker left the Falcons and became a coach at IMG Academy.
But during his break, Unzicker missed coaching high school soccer and watched the private schools play at the district tournament.
Seeing Out-of-Door Academy’s younger generation piqued Unzicker’s interest.
That was several years ago, but he witnessed the future of the Thunder’s program.
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“The demographics have also changed a little bit,” Unzicker said. “For a while there, out east wasn’t completely built up yet and then the kids that did play soccer out here, they were going to Lakewood Ranch, and Braden River got a lot of them. Independent-school wise, I think we’re just starting to grow a school that is academically and athletically inclined, as I think our focus was academic at first. So now that things are falling into place, there’s a nice cohesion between the two.”
ODA is looking for its third straight district title when the postseason begins for area programs this week.
And this season is on a different level for the Thunder, who haven’t lost a match. They’re riding a 15-game winning streak, and they feature several standout players.
Arguably the best, though, is a freshman: Natalie Gorji. She’s already logged a 20-goal year and is a menace to defend against.
“Last year she made first team All-Area as an eighth-grader, and she’s come back and is better than she was last year,” Unzicker said. “Making better decisions, technically stronger and physically stronger. I don’t know when that’s going to be her peak. Right now, I’m looking at that and saying, ‘Wow, that’s something else.’ She’s striving to do more.”
Gorji, a forward, is among five club players and three that drive back-and-forth from their home in Bradenton/Sarasota to Tampa for training.
“It definitely helps a lot, because we play with each other all the time, so the connection is definitely there for the through balls and everything,” Gorji said.
Gorji, Abby Lagasse, Madi Opstal, Heather Squitieri and Chloe Flanders are part of ODA’s vaunted scoring machine. The Thunder, though, are also adept at defending. They’ve conceded just five times, with four of those goals coming against district foes.
The district tournament begins Tuesday with a play-in match between Sarasota Christian and North Port Imagine. That winner meets ODA on Thursday, while Bradenton Christian and Saint Stephen’s compete in the second semifinal at Saint Stephen’s.
Despite the back-to-back district championships, the Thunder haven’t won a regional game since 2009. The last two seasons saw first-round playoff exits, including a 2-1 heartbreaker to Naples Community School where ODA allowed a late equalizer to send the game into extra time.
In addition to ODA’s unbeaten season, Lakewood Ranch is one of the area’s top teams this season and is the No. 1 seed in Class 5A-District 8. That tournament begins Wednesday, with the Mustangs hosting Sarasota and Manatee traveling to Sarasota Riverview following a tiebreaker that didn’t go the Hurricanes’ way.
Lakewood Ranch is coming off a season-ending 8-0 rout of Palmetto that garnered the 300th career victory for head coach Guy Virgilio. But one thing that’s been missing from his illustrious resume is a state championship. And this year’s road could go through Palm Harbor University and/or Tarpon Springs East Lake.
“There’s a lot of great teams there that’s been successful over the years,” Virgilio said. “And we have to go through them. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not supposed to (be).”
Girls soccer district schedule
Class 5A-District 8
Sarasota at Lakewood Ranch, 7 p.m.
Manatee at Sarasota Riverview, 7 p.m.
Championship at higher seed, 7 p.m.
Class 4A-District 11
Palmetto at Punta Gorda Charlotte, 7 p.m.
Palmetto/Charlotte winner at Venice, 7 p.m.
Braden River at North Port, 7 p.m.
Championship at higher seed, 7 p.m.
Class 3A-District 10
Gibbs/Lakewood winner at Seminole Osceola, 6 p.m.
Gulfport Boca Ciega at Dunedin, 7 p.m.
Bayshore at Tarpon Springs, 7 p.m.
Southeast at Largo, 6 p.m.
Wednesday (all games at Gulfport Boca Ciega)
Gibbs/Lakewood/Osceola winner vs. Boca Ciega/Dunedin winner, 6 p.m.
Bayshore/Tarpon Springs winner vs. Southeast/Largo winner, 8 p.m.
Championship at Boca Ciega, 7 p.m.
Class 2A-District 11
(all games at Sarasota Booker)
SMA vs. Arcadia DeSoto, 5 p.m.
Cardinal Mooney vs. Sarasota Booker, 7 p.m.
Championship, 6 p.m.
Class 1A-District 7
(all games at Saint Stephen's)
Sarasota Christian vs. North Port Imagine, 7 p.m.
SCS/Imagine winner vs. ODA, 5:30 p.m.
Bradenton Christian vs. Saint Stephen's, 7:30 p.m.
Championship, 7 p.m.