BRADENTON -- The usual suspects are back for another year of trying to claim a girls soccer state championship. But joining Lakewood Ranch, Saint Stephen’s and Cardinal Mooney’s quest are several improving programs looking to leave a mark on the 2011-12 season.
So, with that in mind, here’s a breakdown of area teams:
Class 4A-District 11
This district features three local programs paired with two Sarasota County and two Charlotte County schools.
Manatee and Braden River join perennial power Lakewood Ranch to round out county clubs looking to make a deep postseason run.
The Mustangs are without Sarah Miller, who capped her sparkling career at Ranch by surpassing the 100-goal mark and set the all-time career assists record. Miller is a freshman at the University of South Florida.
Despite losing such an integral part of last season’s Final Four team, Ranch is poised to claim a district title once again.
Aubrey Riggins and Sarah Wolfe are two key returners for head coach Guy Virgilio’s side.
Manatee is an improved team from last year. The Hurricanes have already played the Mustangs tough, but ultimately lost to the perennial powerhouses 2-0. Meredith Argeros and Jessie Block anchor a stout defense, with Jessalyn Kinlaw already showing a flair for finding the net for the Hurricanes. Kinlaw opened the season with a hat trick against Port Charlotte.
Braden River could also contend for a state berth alongside the Hurricanes. Both clubs will have to battle Venice, a program that has made the playoffs three straight years.
The Pirates tied the Canes earlier this month, and recently lost to the Indians 1-0. Elizabeth Shirey is the distributor so far, with assists in early district matches against Sarasota, Manatee and Punta Gorda Charlotte as well as in the 5-0 non-district rout of Palmetto. Kayla Gray is also playing well for Braden River with multiple goals in the 2011-12 campaign.
Class 3A-District 10
Southeast and Palmetto have the best chance at making the state tournament among the three Manatee County programs. The Seminoles are paced by Daryl Bell. Last season, Bell was just a freshman but dominated the game nearly every time she stepped on the pitch. With a full season under her belt and the experience of last season’s trip to the state tournament, Bell could thrive at the end of this winter’s grind.
Standing in the way, though, could be Palmetto. After getting outscored by a combined 7-0 by Saint Stephen’s and Braden River to begin this season, the Tigers blanked district foe Gulfport Boca Ciega 7-0 in their district opener recently.
Bayshore rounds out county teams in 3A-10.
Class 2A-District 11
The only area teams in this district are Cardinal Mooney and Booker. Hannah Howard leads a potent Cougars attack. Mooney is 3-1 and should contend for a district crown. The rest of the district is made up of clubs down south, with three residing in Fort Myers.
The Cougars already have notched a district victory, drubbing Fort Myers Dunbar 8-0 in the opener. Howard’s penchant for bagging goals is on display this season as she has scored six times in Mooney’s three victories.
Fort Myers Bishop Verot is always a dangerous and talented program. The Vikings and Cougars most likely will battle it out for the district championship.
Class 1A-District 8
Saint Stephen’s hasn’t missed a beat so far this year. The Falcons lost six starters off last winter’s Class 2A regional semifinal team.
Among those departing starters were Alyssa Allen and Martine Miller. They combined to score 55 goals. Allen graduated, while Miller -- who trains at IMG -- transferred to Manatee.
Nonetheless, the Falcons boast a strong down-the-middle group that includes senior Shannon Morrish in goal and senior Amber Falkner in a sweeper role behind senior Michelle Benz, who anchors the defense.
Sophmores Kayla Hayes, Kristi Jones and Becca Banks round out the back line, while Hannah Howell controls the middle. The junior, along with fellow classmates Alexis Sedillo and Christina Jones, gives head coach Eric Howell a formidable team.
“We still have several club players on the team,” Howell said. “Our goal is always to win districts, but also to be better at the end of the year than we are now. So if we have to take some lumps, while we’re trying to figure out positioning and what not, they understand it. And the girls have been open to new positions.”
That includes eighth-grader Lindsay Leskinen, whom Howell said he’s trying to play more offense than defense. So far, Leskinen has found the net in her new role, doing it against Bayshore on Nov. 10.
Howell said St. Petersburg Shorecrest Prep is a club that historically has given the Falcons a tough time. That could mean the district boils down to those two sides.
Bradenton Christian dropped its first two games -- both district contests -- by a combined 10-1 margin.
The Out-of-Door Academy rounds out area programs in 1A-8.